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Sexual harassment policies unchanged at most firms in Japan, despite growing awareness amid global Me Too movement: poll

Reuters

Three-quarters of Japanese companies have made no changes to sexual harassment policies over the last year and don’t plan to do so, a recent poll found, though awareness of harassment is on the rise.

The survey results come after a high-level bureaucrat was toppled in the nation over a harassment scandal, and amid the global #MeToo movement that has forced workplace sexual harassment into national focus.

In the poll, conducted May 9-21, 78 percent of companies said they hadn’t strengthened measures to deal with sexual harassment during the last year. A further 77 percent said they weren’t even considering changes.

“We’ve put in place measures in the past, and haven’t added anything in particular,” wrote a manager at a chemical products firm.

Companies responded anonymously to the survey, which is conducted monthly for Reuters by Nikkei Research. Of the 541 large and midsize nonfinancial firms polled, 232 answered questions on sexual harassment policies.

Japan lags far behind other developed countries on gender equality, ranking 114th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report.

The divide is especially pronounced in the workplace. Women make up only 3.7 percent of board members at listed Japanese firms, compared with 16.4 in the United States and 27 percent in Germany.

It is difficult to accurately gauge how common sexual harassment is at Japanese companies. Lawyers and activists say victims are often wary of speaking out for fear of being blamed or damage to their career.

But data points to the depth of the problem. More than 42 percent of women have experienced or witnessed harassment at work according to a survey last year by Rengo, Japan’s biggest trade union confederation.

Former Finance Ministry top bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda resigned last month after accusations he sexually harassed a female reporter. Fukuda denied the allegation, but the ministry later said he had harassed the reporter and docked his pay.

Protests and fierce debate followed the scandal, with a Cabinet minister calling for a law to strengthen relief and protection for victims of sexual harassment. Others hoped Japan might be at a turning point in attitudes towards harassment.

The May survey shows awareness of sexual harassment has grown over the last year.

Thirty-nine percent of firms noted a shift in culture and awareness on the issue, with 7 percent citing a major change. Companies said they have expanded education, through improved e-learning and training of workers and executives.

“For senior staff, an old-fashioned attitude remains,” wrote a manager at a service sector company. “But recently consciousness has greatly increased, and they are becoming more aware of their actions.”

The Labor Ministry has also seen an uptick in the number of companies seeking government advice on sexual harassment policies since the Fukuda scandal, said Ryouko Awayama, who oversees policy on workplace harassment.

Since 1999, companies in Japan have been obliged by law to prevent and deal with sexual harassment via training, consultation channels and swift action after complaints.

Still, specialist lawyers have said that many companies, although meeting their legal obligations, are too slow to respond to complaints and have failed to create environments where women who experience harassment feel able to speak out.

Only 14 percent of companies said they had received complaints of sexual harassment in the last year, the poll found.

Ikumi Sato, a lawyer who has trained companies on sexual harassment, said that concrete action following complaints was rare, and that there was a often a lack of redress for victims. That could discourage them from doing anything at all, she said.

“Even if there’s a system in place, they don’t make complaints,” Sato said. “Many claims simply don’t surface.”