Commentary / Japan

How to stop sexual harassment

by Toko Shirakawa

The #MeToo issue has finally come to the fore in Japan. The administrative vice finance minister has resigned over an accusation made against him by a woman reporter of TV Asahi concerning sexual harassment. The Finance Ministry officially apologized by saying that sexual harassment constitutes violation of a victim’s human rights and should not be condoned. April 18, the day the vice minister resigned, marked a big turning point on the issue in Japan since “sexual harassment” was chosen the buzzword-of-the year in 1989. So what steps Japan and its businesses should take in regard to the problem going forward?

The Nikkei newspaper carried out an emergency poll over sexual harassment covering 1,000 working women. More than 60 percent of victimized women told the daily that they had put up with sexual harassment, indicating that many victims cannot even consult their employers out of fear that their jobs could be negatively affected. The Nikkei article said that for the advancement of women at workplaces, the creation of a work environment free from obstacles for them is indispensable, and called for a change in the people’s mindset about the problem, along with measures to prevent recurrence of the problem.

In connection with the alleged harassment of the TV Asahi reporter by the top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, lawyer Toko Teramachi pointed out in Huffington Post that a media firm has the duty to take adequate steps against sexual harassment or power harassment that its reporters suffer from people they meet while carrying out their duties, as a measure to ensure safety of its employees.

The recent resignation of the president and an official of NH Foods Ltd. represented a case in which a business protected its employee against sexual harassment. In October, the NH Foods official sexually harassed a female employee of an airline firm in the presence of the president while they were in a VIP room at Haneda airport. The airline officially protested to the food company, and both the president and the official subsequently stepped down. The airline firm protected the employee — although NH Foods was its important customer.

The other day, about 30 companies organized a study meeting to cope with the problem of harassment. Four of the participating companies shared their experience in dealing with the problem. A woman who moved to a Japanese company to take charge of compliance issues after long years of working for foreign-affiliated companies said she felt as if she experienced a time slip of 20 years back into the past.

In the discussion on harassment against media reporters, participants from many Japanese companies said that Japanese media are far behind in dealing with the problem. Some of them said their companies hold seminars on harassment and have sections with which employees can file complaints. Such responses by the Japanese firms, however, are 20 years behind global standards. So the Japanese mass media and the government bureaucracy are even further behind.

Participants from two companies that follow global standards said they have a system to intervene in the harassment of their employees even if the victims do not complain. The Japan unit of a U.S. financial firm monitors the email communications of its workers and takes action when the employer finds there is something wrong. Employees of the firm are required upon hiring to sign a document noting that they will be immediately fired if they commit sexual or power harassment, and that they would not complain about the dismissal.

In the United States, Toyota Motor North America is facing a $190 million sexual harassment lawsuit. U.S.-affiliated firms generally take harassment risks seriously.

Consulting firm Accenture features measures against harassment in its work-style reform programs. Harassment is one of the items that are checked every quarter in assessing progress of the work-style reform efforts. Harassment is a problem that affects the productivity of a company. Accenture regularly monitors the productivity of both its teams and individual workers. When a team of workers is clearly not operating smoothly, the outcome can be used to analyze the situation of harassment and its causes, if one is taking place, and to consider how to deal with the problem.

Seiji Yasubuchi, president of Visa Worldwide Japan Co., says it is the duty of the firm’s employees to report to the company when they have witnessed acts of harassment. They can do it anonymously, and the company has a strict policy that prohibits retaliation against the workers who speak out.

Globally operating companies have a system to intervene in acts of harassment even in the absence of a complaint from the victim. They take the problem of harassment seriously as it concerns their competitiveness, productivity and ability to secure talented workforce.

Having worked at the Japanese branch of a U.S. financial company in the 1990s, I am surprised that the atmosphere at those companies — where people back then used to be excused for doing anything as long as they were making money — has undergone a transformation of 180 degrees.

The change is said to be a lesson learned from the Lehman Brothers shock — it is for the sake of sustainability of the business and for securing talented human resources.

As far as the harassment issues are concerned, both the government bureaucracy and the mass media are advised to refrain from discussing the problem from the standpoint of their own “common sense.” Countries like Belgium, France and Canada introduced laws against acts of harassment in the 2000s. Japan needs to promptly take legislative steps to enact such a law.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and an 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.