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Time magazine’s 2020 edition of its 100 most influential people has been covered extensively in Japan because it includes two young Japanese women, although the reaction was relatively cool. In the case of Naomi Osaka, who made the list for the second year running, the recognition has been double-edged. She won the U.S. Open tennis tournament for the second time, and did so while drawing attention to the names of Black Americans who have been killed by police. For the most part, the Japanese media is happy to acknowledge Osaka’s athletic achievements but cautious about playing up her activism.

The other Japanese woman recognized, journalist Shiori Ito, is all about activism, since she is the most visible representative in Japan of the #MeToo movement calling attention to sexual violence against women. Ito publicly accused another journalist of raping her in 2015. In the Time piece, sociologist Chizuko Ueno calls Ito’s actions “brave,” given the social stigma attached to rape allegations in Japan. Predictably, she has received as much grief as support in Japan for her willingness to discuss the experience.

Time’s recognition comes on the heels of two lawsuits that Ito has filed against persons she believes defamed her in public. In June, she filed a ¥5.5 million libel suit against cartoonist Toshiko Hasumi for five Twitter posts that imply Ito willingly slept with her accused rapist in order to get a job. Then, in August, she sued Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita for libel because Sugita “liked” several tweets that also implied Ito was not a rape victim but rather a sexual opportunist. Inadvertently adding insult to injury as far as Ito and her supporters are concerned, last month Sugita, during a closed meeting, allegedly said women “easily lie” about being sexually abused. After initially denying she said such a thing, Sugita later admitted that she did and apologized, albeit conditionally.

Media companies have been cautious about covering the lawsuits, presumably because they don’t want to be targets of the same people who attacked Ito. There’s also a subset of commentators who support Ito but are uncomfortable with the Sugita suit because it endeavors to punish clicking the “like” button on Twitter. Partly this is a reaction to a recent Osaka High Court verdict that upheld a lower court finding in favor of former Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who had sued a journalist for retweeting a post that Hashimoto said defamed him. The court decided that retweeting is equivalent to repeating the original libel, a judgment that worries free speech advocates.

Ito may have foreseen this response. According to a July 7 article in the Mainichi Shimbun, she approached Chiki Ogiue, an expert on social media, in February to analyze the comments she had received on various internet platforms. Ogiue collected posts going back to 2017 in order to find material for a possible defamation suit. By June 8, Ogiue had isolated some 700,000 posts, including those that were favorable toward Ito. Ogiue assumes there are millions more, and points out that the attacks against Ito continue.

Among these were 216,294 tweets, of which 10.6 percent were critical of Ito and 4.5 percent, in Ogiue’s judgement, potentially libelous. Although Ogiue found that comments on Yahoo contained the highest portion of negative sentiments, Twitter produced the highest portion of libelous comments, which is significant because of the way the platform spreads initial posts through retweeting and liking. Whether positive or negative, users’ sentiments are thus spread throughout the internet exponentially. The premise of the Sugita lawsuit is not so much that Sugita appreciated a comment that was false and malicious, but that due to her own high profile as a public figure, which had garnered her about 110,000 followers at the time, by liking such a tweet she spread the libel to countless other people on the platform.

Ogiue told the Mainichi Shimbun that Twitter is supposed to police such harmful actions but did nothing in Ito’s case, and the abuse she received was compounded by the so-called just-world theory, which posits that when people are persecuted there must be a reason. Following this logic, the public may believe Ito’s story, but because she is the target of so much vilification she’s probably guilty of something.

At a news conference on Aug. 20 that discussed the Sugita lawsuit, Ito’s lawyer said it would focus on 13 libelous tweets that the LDP lawmaker liked. She also liked tweets that abused Ito’s supporters, so the defamation was not confined to attacks on Ito alone. What’s important to remember is that Sugita expressed her disapproval of Ito without explicitly saying so in public. She just shared her disapproval with those who would likely agree with her.

The judge in the Hashimoto case deemed the journalist complicit in the libel for retweeting it. Retweeting is not the same as “liking” a post — the retweeter may not necessarily support the position advocated by the original tweet. “Liking” a tweet implies the liker wants to show appreciation for the tweet. Ito’s lawyer, who has handled internet defamation suits before, pointed out that this is the first time the “like” button has been the trigger for a lawsuit, and insisted that the purpose is not to infringe on anybody’s freedom of speech. Some will say the lawyer is splitting hairs, but Ito is counting on the court recognizing Sugita’s malicious intention.

Ito has said that the suicide of professional wrestler Hana Kimura in May after suffering abuse online prompted her to file the initial lawsuit. Kimura’s death has also prompted the government to propose a law that would compel social media outlets to reveal information about users cited in defamation lawsuits, a move that also worries free speech advocates.

In a blog post, Upper House lawmaker Shun Otokita says any such regulation should be considered carefully, since it could be exploited by those in power who wish to silence critics. Ito has every right to defend herself against malicious attacks, but she seems to be climbing a slippery slope.

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