Commentary / Japan

Corporate Japan slow to grasp #MeToo

by Toko Shirakawa

While TV news programs were flooded recently with stories about the violent assault by yokozuna Harumafuji on a fellow sumo wrestler, the #MeToo movement was the hot topic on the internet. A popular Japanese blogger and writer had accused her former superior at an advertising agency of sexual and power harassment. The person named in the accusation — a renowned creator — has acknowledged sexually harassing her and apologized in his blog.

The global #MeToo wave had finally arrived in Japan. This would appear to be pretty big news, but the TV networks didn’t pick it up, choosing instead to devote their resources to the sumo scandal, quoting somebody as saying that in the world of sumo, it’s customary for those in higher positions to hit those in lower positions to “guide” them — a way of thinking that seems to send us back to the bygone Showa Era. Now the Heisei Era that replaced Showa is nearing its end. But just as it was when the era began nearly 30 years ago, the mass media’s sensitivity toward violence and discrimination seems insufficient.

What was considered a non-issue during the Showa Era is a source of potential business risk today. Foreign-owned companies that are more sensitive to the risk associated with sexual harassment say they take three steps against the practice: First, they make sure everybody is aware of the problem, such as having employees take mandatory training sessions. Second, they secure a line of communication for complaints and alerts that goes directly to the human resources department. Third, they keep a sharp eye out to see if problems are occurring, such as by monitoring in-house email, and intervene even if a victim has not filed a complaint.

They take such steps because they want to avoid the possibility of litigation and the risk to their corporate reputation, and they want to secure talented human resources. Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance sells an insurance product for corporate clients to cover the expense of dealing with a possible situation when a company comes under heavy fire on the internet. That such a product has been developed shows that there is enough associated risk to create a market.

Aside from the risk of sexual harassment taking place at a company undermining the reputation of and public trust in the firm, a Showa Era mindset within the company might negatively affect its business operations. Recently, a number of companies have come under fire on the web for their TV commercials and promotional videos. Some of the problem may be attributable to the male-centric environment and workplace culture at those firms, where sexual harassment and power harassment go unchecked.

A symposium the other day at the University of Tokyo discussed the risk of coming under fire on the internet and the appropriateness of gender expressions in the media. The event was organized by a group examining media expressions and diversity comprising researchers and journalists, including myself. Participants took a look at examples of TV programs and videos that came under fire online in relation to gender issues. People involved in content production at ad agencies and internet TV examined why TV commercials and programs that come under fire are produced.

The examples discussed ranged from gray-zone cases to obviously problematic ones. One example of the latter was a YouTube video created by an ad agency for a local government to promote the local specialty of cultured eels — in which a young woman in a swimsuit was “bred” in a pool until she morphed into an eel. The promotional video, titled “Unako,” was removed after incurring criticism even from overseas that it was evocative of the kidnapping and confinement of girls.

A promotional video for a beer-like alcoholic drink sold by Suntory Ltd. also came under fire for portraying women as excessively “sexual” characters. The protagonist in the video — a male company employee — appears to be “seduced” by women whom he happens to encounter on business trips as they enjoy the drink together, with some of the scenes seeming to reflect a barely veiled “men’s fantasy.”

People often say that such videos are placed on the web with the intention of drawing fire so they will earn page views. However, Satoko Takada, creative director of McCann Erickson Japan, told the symposium that an advertisement will never be produced with the intention of creating a stir on the web. Ad content must serve the interests of the clients. It would be meaningless if an ad spoils the image of or make enemies for the client. First and foremost, an ad is intended to improve the public image and awareness of the client, its brand and products.

Be it a web video or TV program, content that treats women as a sexual objects or emphasizes gender-based division of roles tends to run a higher risk of coming under fire online.

It’s not just content that involves women as a subject that comes under fire. The symposium also took up the subject of discrimination against sexual minorities in the media. A variety program on Fuji TV came under fire for reviving a character that made fun of gay men, prompting the broadcaster’s president to apologize. The famous comedian Takaaki Ishibashi of the The Tunnels duo played the role of a character associated with the image of a gay man — which was popular on the program 30 years ago — and other characters in the skit asked, “You are homosexual, aren’t you?”

Gon Matsunaka, a representative of the nonprofit organization Good Aging Yells who sent a letter of protest to Fuji TV, said that unless you raise your voice on such occasions, the perception will persist that making fun of gay people is acceptable. Even before the program was aired, the revival of the character Homooda Homoo was questioned widely on the internet. But even though discrimination against LGBT people is now recognized as a social problem, in the end the program was aired unaltered.

Matsunaka says that aside from the question of awareness of each individual over the issue, the problem may lie in the decision-making process during the production of these TV programs. I’m afraid that the risk of web content or TV programming coming under fire grows higher if the opinions of younger staff or minority views are ignored in the process. It’s probably no coincidence that advertising agencies, TV broadcasters and newspapers — and liquor makers — tend to be monocultural communities where male-centric operations still dominate.

One way to address the problem may be for a company to have someone serving as the “gender police” to control such risks. I receive occasional requests from businesses to review their promotional videos for such risks. But videos should be checked by in-house staff at the production level, as it is often difficult for an outside adviser to correct them in the final stage.

In fact, a member of the audience at the symposium said his company was just about to release a TV commercial that’s certain to draw fire and asked what can be done to stop it. I just hope that companies will establish a mechanism that heeds such opinions of their employees during the decision-making process.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.