A report from the labor ministry last month found that 30 percent of women in Japan have been sexually harassed. While the reality of harassment is known to most people, the survey was, surprisingly, the first of its kind conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The high rate of harassment found in the survey demands action by the government and employers.

The survey, conducted last September and October, covered about 26,000 women at 6,500 companies across Japan aged 25 to 44, followed by an online survey with about 5,000 more women. The overall percentage of women reporting sexual harassment was 28.7 percent. Regular employees, though, had a higher rate of harassment, at 34.7 percent, followed by contract workers at 24.6 percent, temporary employees at 20.9 percent and part-time workers at 17.8 percent. Clearly, the more time that was spent at work, the more harassment women suffered.

There are different types of harassment, but all create a frustrating, unproductive, and unfair environment for women. Over half the respondents told of receiving comments about their age, appearance or other external characteristics. Unnecessary physical contact was reported by 40.1 percent. Comments or questions about sexual issues were reported by 38.2 percent. Women were also forced to sing karaoke together, expected to pour alcohol or sit in certain places at drinking parties, or were asked out for meals or dates. Direct sexual propositions were received by 16.8 percent.

The message is that women are important not for their ability to work, but for their physical characteristics and social roles, or as sex objects. Companies, male co-workers and the labor ministry are just not getting it.

Though many companies have improved their response to reports of the worst forms of harassment, women are still victimized. More steps need to be taken at companies, regardless of their size. Employees need a secure and safe place to report harassment, but companies large and small need to raise awareness with proper information and training designed to nurture a more sensitive, professional mindset.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they did nothing and simply put up with their suffering without reporting it. That high a percentage indicates that the systems to raise awareness and respond to incidents are not trusted by women or are not in place at all. The level of inaction also suggests that harassment is probably far more common than found by this survey.

The government and companies, as well as many male employees, still fail to comprehend the seriousness of sexual harassment. They do not grasp how oppressive such behavior is and how it harms both women and the work environment. This must change.

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