The Me Too movement, which was initially slow to spread in Japan, is now quietly reaching boiling point.
The latest source of heat is a journalist who claims the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrat harassed her with sexually suggestive comments. The woman told her story, on condition of anonymity, to the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, which then reported the case earlier this month.
Last week, the bureaucrat, Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, abruptly stepped down, saying the allegation, which he denied, left him unable to do his job.
A few hours later, TV Asahi announced that the woman was an employee. The broadcaster said she decided to reveal her affiliation because she feared remaining anonymous would jeopardize the credibility of her claim.
The scandal appears to be empowering journalists to address the elephant in the room: sexual harassment in Japan’s media.
To better understand the scale of this problem, The Japan Times reached out to a media community online and was eventually contacted by a number of female Japanese journalists who described the experience of not only enduring sexual harassment in their careers but also often facing silence when they protested.
All requested that their names be withheld, but many said they felt it was necessary to share their experiences to let the public know about the deep-rooted problem in this male-dominated vocation and to protect younger reporters from becoming victims.
“When I was in my early 20s and still a rookie reporter, a very high-ranking government official seemed to take a liking to me and repeatedly phoned me several times a day. When I could not answer, he always left unpleasant messages, such as ‘Don’t you want to be my daughter?’ When I ignored him and he couldn’t reach me for a long time, his messages got more threatening,” a woman from a major media organization told The Japan Times in an email message. “I was scared, but I didn’t know what to do. At the end of the day, I couldn’t tell anyone about what I was going through.”
The claim leveled by the woman at TV Asahi is only the tip of the iceberg, say experts and other female journalists. They say Japanese society as a whole needs to realize the gravity of the issue and act on it.
In an online survey of journalists by the daily Asahi Shimbun in January, 119 said they had been sexually harassed on the job. Of that group, 70 percent did not consult anyone about the experience, the survey said. A fourth of the respondents were men.
Some may ask that if sexual harassment is so common in Japan, why do so few speak up about it?
The journalist who divulged her experience with the senior official in the email said she felt it was impossible to tell her company what happened because she thought it would damage her job prospects.
“If a woman reports to her boss, she risks her career. The company may see such a woman as a troublemaker and she is likely to be transferred to another division. There is also a high chance that the Japanese public may blame the victim, saying it could be her fault because she may have seduced him,” she said. “I am worried that this reporter at TV Asahi may become a target of such public criticism. I hope TV Asahi will protect her to the end.”
To get inside information, Japanese journalists often hold intimate conversations with their sources. This can lead to uncomfortable situations of a sexual nature that could evolve into misunderstandings and then sexual harassment, especially among women.
But what can make these cases worse is that many of Japan’s media organizations have long ignored the problem, taking minimal action to protect their female employees.
A female TV reporter in her 20s told The Japan Times that a police officer who was a longtime source harassed her when she was a rookie on the crime beat.
“Two senior colleagues took me out for drinks with a police officer who had provided useful information to our company for a long time. I was later asked by the colleagues to escort him back to his home. On the way, he pulled me into an alley and kissed my lips and neck,” she wrote in an email, requesting anonymity. “A couple of days later, I told my colleagues about what happened, but they said they couldn’t do much about it because he was such a valued source for the company,” she said, noting her colleagues had failed to watch out for her.
Pundits say many of the problems stem from the male-dominated culture of Japan’s media industry.
“Not only is there the fact that the majority of reporters are male, but a more important issue is male-centric values deeply embedded in their working styles, such as working late at night and getting information by meeting a male source one-on-one, even if that comes with risks,” said Kaori Hayashi, a professor of journalism at the University of Tokyo.
In Japan, the definition of “good reporter” often includes the ability to cope with female-unfriendly environments, the professor said. That often leaves women no choice but to meet male sources one on one, regardless of time and place.
“I know that journalism is not an easy profession and there are times when they must go visit officials at their homes late at night or early in the morning to get exclusive information,” said Hayashi, who used to report for Reuters. But she questioned whether the practice, known as youchi-asagake, is crucial to producing good journalism.
“In reality, many are doing so-called youchi-asagake for fear of missing out on a scoop,” Hayashi said. But the results of such efforts are often hard to see in their reporting, she added.
Media organizations also need to work harder to protect employees, observers say.
Toko Teramachi, a lawyer who specializes in harassment issues, stresses it is important for media organizations to set up both internal and external contact points where employees can report problems without fear of being exposed.
“This is a chance for reporters to find out whether their companies have systems in place where they can feel at ease to report about sexual harassment,” Teramachi said. “If not, they need to get together with their colleagues or ask labor unions to demand the companies create them.”
Though Japan’s media industry is lagging other industries in creating women-friendly environments, there are signs of positive change.
The Finance Ministry scandal could prompt the industry to review the status quo.
Renge Jibu, a freelance journalist who is an expert on gender issues, said that unlike their seniors, more young men in the media industry are becoming aware of the issue and are often very critical about any form of harassment.
“Immediately after Shukan Shincho’s report, I received a message from a male TV employee urging me to (publicly) say something about it,” Jibu said.
“It may be difficult to see when you look at current media organizations. But if you look at individuals, there are many men who are angry about sexual harassment and are trying to do something about it,” Jibu said.
In a rare move, the Finance Ministry’s press club issued a letter of protest against the ministry on Wednesday, criticizing its handling of the case. The ministry had asked reporters on April 16 to contact its lawyer if they had been sexually harassed by Fukuda.
Finance Minister Taro Aso also said that if reporters don’t come forward, the ministry will be unable to verify allegations.
There are also voices within the government saying harassment must not be tolerated anymore.
“The reality is that victims of sexual harassment can’t talk about it even to their families,” Seiko Noda, internal affairs minister and minister for women’s empowerment, claimed Tuesday, expressing discomfort with the ministry’s request.
“Normally, victimized women just can’t come forward and have talks with the harasser’s side,” she said.
On Friday, Noda announced that she plans to hold hearings for women in the media industry to discuss sexual harassment and other issues facing them.
After taking up her position at the ministry in August last year, Noda banned reporters from visiting her home late at night to seek comment on policy matters, a routine practice.
Instead, she said she responds to phone calls and e-mails from reporters as much as possible and holds informal meetings with them during the day to give them a chance to ask her questions.
“I felt terrible when I saw a young female reporter outside my house in the cold, waiting for me to come home late at night. I wonder if we can change such a working style,’’ Noda told The Japan Times. “This is not just a matter of the media industry after all. I hope people in high-ranking positions, especially in the big business community, will learn from the latest case and be responsive to social needs.”
On-the-job harassment in the media
The following experiences were shared — on condition of anonymity — with The Japan Times in interviews and by email.
Journalist at major media outlet
- “While I was on the politics beat, a high-ranking official tried to kiss me when we were walking together in broad daylight. I was not the only victim. He was doing the same to all the other female reporters who needed to cover him, and I know that at least one of them was crying after she could not prevent him from kissing her.”
- “An aide to one minister, an important news source of mine before, invited me for dinner. Afterward, he offered me a taxi ride home. Along the way, he started asking me to be his mistress. I immediately rejected his request, but my professional relationship with him became awkward after that.”
- “When I was covering one of the ministries, the director of the public relations division at that time asked me to fill out a form for reporters with information such as my home address and mobile phone number. That night, he called me and said, ‘I’m just outside your condominium now. Why don’t we go out for drinks?’ I was very frightened by his stalking-like behavior.”
- “When I was in my early 20s and still a rookie reporter, a very high-ranking government official seemed to take a liking to me and he repeatedly phoned me several times a day. When I could not answer, he always left unpleasant messages, such as ‘Don’t you want to be my daughter?’ When I ignored him and he couldn’t reach me for a long time, his messages got more threatening. I was scared, but I didn’t know what to do. At the end of the day, I couldn’t tell anyone about what I was going through.”
Former newspaper reporter in 30s
- “I was advised by senior colleagues that I should reserve a private room at a restaurant when going out for drinks with a police officer. I followed the guidance because I was new to journalism. I met a police officer who worked for a section responsible for assisting crime victims. The officer occasionally called me and gave me inside information about crimes. But once we were in the private room in the restaurant, he started kissing me and touching my breasts. He also did so when we were walking to a subway station if no one was around. I didn’t resist as I knew that I was not good at making professional relationships with police officers.”
TV station reporter in 20s
“The worst period was when I was a rookie reporter and assigned to the crime beat. Two senior colleagues took me out for drinks with a police officer who had provided useful information to our company for a long time. I was later asked by the colleagues to escort him back to his home. On the way, he pulled me into an alley and kissed my lips and neck. A couple days later, I told my colleagues about what happened, but they said they couldn’t do much about it because he was such a valued source for the company.”
Former news agency reporter in 40s
- “When I was 27 years old, I dined with a vice governor who was very powerful in the prefectural government I was covering. The bureau chief and a male reporter were also there. After dinner, the bureau chief told me to take good care of the vice governor. After escorting us to a car, the bureau chief and the male reporter left. I wasn’t quite sure where to take the vice governor, who was in his 60s. So we went to a bar where our bureau members often went, thinking that it could be a safe place. But the vice governor forced me to dance with him and touched my crotch. Actually, I wasn’t shocked as there were very few female reporters back then, and his behavior was nothing out of the ordinary. I began my career when it was still common to be asked at a job interview questions like ‘What are you going to do if a politician touches your butt?’ “
- “I also managed to escape from a married senior colleague who wanted to spend a night together with me at a hotel. I could not resolutely say no to people I worked with, out of fears it would disturb my working relationships with them.”
TV production employee in 30s
“My boss kept asking me about my relations with men, which I regarded as sexual harassment. Since I say things quite bluntly, he often said to me, ‘Do you behave like that in front of your boyfriend?’ ‘I wonder if you are also aggressive in bed?’ and so on.
“After asking him to stop making such comments, I started to face power harassment. I was later fired by the company. I never thought my company would treat me like that. Battered, my symptoms worsened and I was eventually diagnosed with depression.”
Are you being harassed?
The following links are recommended for people seeking advice regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Justice Ministry’s human rights counseling (in English, other languages)
- Justice Ministry’s human rights counseling for women (in Japanese)
- Labor Lawyers Association of Japan (in Japanese)
UPDATE: This story was modified on April 23, 2018, to clarify the fact that The Japan Times reached out to an online media community to locate women who have experienced sexual harassment.