Commentary / Japan

Crack down on sexual harassment in schools

by Toko Shirakawa

Rie Hirakawa, a friend of mine who heads the secretariat of the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education, recently declared that “acts of obscenity and sexual harassment will not be tolerated” in local public schools and said a guideline for disciplinary punishment will be revised to mete out more stringent penalties on teachers involved in such acts.

Hirakawa earlier served as Japan’s first female school principal recruited from the private sector. She has just been selected as one of only three female secretariat chiefs in the nation’s 47 prefectural boards of education.

Hirakawa has always felt that punishment for teachers accused of sexual misconduct is often too lenient. She raised the issue right after she began in her current position. “Being a woman and mother, I thought I would never forgive such an act committed against my children or myself,” she said.

Why did she need to make such a declaration? Why is it difficult to impose strict punishment? Because a law protects teachers in public schools, who are local public servants. The Local Public Service Law allows a punished public servant to file a complaint. If the court decides that the punishment deviates from precedents for similar misconduct, the official responsible for meting out the penalties may lose the trial on the grounds of deviating from or abusing his or her discretionary power.

That’s why Hirakawa’s board needed to make clear in the guideline that sexual abuse and harassment at schools will never be condoned in Hiroshima Prefecture. No boards of education in other prefectures or major cities have issued such a statement.

There are plenty of examples of teachers accused of sex offenses, including sexual harassment, who are fired from their job only to repeat the same offense several years later at a different school.

Why can teachers fired for obscene acts or sex harassment keep teaching? Because there are loopholes. Teachers who receive a disciplinary dismissal lose their teaching license. But teachers who resign voluntarily before being fired do not and may be hired in other prefectures. In short, problematic teachers are not automatically deprived of the opportunity to keep teaching.

Even when a teaching license is annulled, the required credits for teaching that are obtained at university remain valid. After three years have passed, teachers who have had their license revoked can ask for it to be reissued. To prevent such teachers from being hired, a stricter screening process should be applied.

What is the situation in other countries? A Finnish Embassy official in Tokyo said: “If a person wants to become a teacher in Finland, their criminal record is checked. If the person is found to have committed a crime like sexual abuse, the person cannot become a teacher.” If a victim of sexual abuse is 16 or younger, the punishment will be more severe — possibly up to several years in jail. A tight network of teachers and parents holds campaigns to deter teachers who are feared to commit sexual abuse. “Children are encouraged to talk to teachers or parents if they are sexually abused,” the official said.

In Japan, the education ministry has called for stricter punishment of teachers who are involved in sexual offenses and obscene acts. It also plans to invest in a system for managing teaching licenses in a unified manner nationwide.

In fiscal 1990, only three teachers at public elementary and junior high schools were given disciplinary dismissals for committing obscene acts. In 2012, the number was 40 times higher — 119 — according to “Sukuru Sekuhara” (“School Sexual Harassment”), a book written by journalist Takashi Iketani. The number in fiscal 2016 hit 226. Iketani writes in his book: “It is unlikely that the quality of teachers has suddenly dropped. It’s only that teachers have come to be punished for the types of offenses that used to be overlooked.”

His book depicts a scene in which a woman in her 30s who was sexually abused when she was 16 confronts the teacher who abused her. The woman suffered from anorexia and very low self-esteem and has since never been in love in a true sense. Meanwhile, the teacher kept his job. Although the number of teachers who are punished is increasing, others go unpunished and remain in the profession. This suggests that the cases in which the teachers were penalized represent just the tip of the iceberg.

There are reportedly other ways for teachers who were punished to remain in the profession — such as not returning their invalidated teaching license or forging a new license. The education ministry’s planned new system will allow name searches to vet the status of licenses. Whether records of teachers’ disciplinary dismissals or criminal records should be made searchable in the system appears to still be undecided.

The education ministry should hold discussions by experts on what actions could be taken against sexual abuse and harassment at schools. Severer punishment and unified management of teaching licenses could help improve the situation. But to prevent sexual abuse by teachers, education that encourages both children and parents to file complaints about such acts is more important.

A friend of mine from France says that a big difference between that country and Japan is the gap in recognition of the “dignity of the body” — since your body is a precious thing, you must not allow somebody to easily touch it. In France, sex education starts at age 8, according to “Furansu-jin no Sei” (“Sex of French People”), a book written by Natsuki Prado. The teaching is handled by specialists from a professional organization because parents and teachers are thought not to be fit for the task. In the classrooms, the specialists teach about both sex and love.

It is questionable whether in Japan such issues as the relationship between love and sex, the sex-related norms one must follow, sex with minors and sex without consent are adequately taught in schools. The first thing to do would appear to be educating the teachers themselves. There are many dedicated teachers who are doing their best. But some teachers clearly need more education on these matters.

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.