FUKUOKA – The Shiori Ito case provides a classic instance of the sexual predation and gender injustice that has motivated #MeToo movements around the world. Yet hers was often a lonely fight for justice.
Early in 2015, Ito, a 26-year-old journalist, emailed Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a well-connected veteran television reporter and TBS bureau chief in Washington. They had met briefly in the United States before, and Ito contacted him to follow up on assurances he had made to help her find a job. They met for dinner in Tokyo in April 2015. After drinking with Yamaguchi, Ito suffered a memory blackout; she later suspected that Yamaguchi had spiked her drinks. Police investigators and journalists reconstructed subsequent events from the testimonies of a taxi cab driver and a doorman at the hotel where Yamaguchi was staying, and from the hotel’s security camera footage.
This reconstruction established that Yamaguchi had taken an intoxicated, physically ill and semi-conscious Ito by taxi to his hotel, that she had asked to be dropped off at a train station on the way, that she had not wanted to get out when they arrived, and that Yamaguchi had carried her into the hotel. Ito has testified that early the next morning she came to her senses, to find herself, in her words, “lying naked in a hotel bed, face up with Mr. Yamaguchi on top of me” having sexual intercourse with her — which Yamaguchi later insisted was consensual.
So far, then, a grimly familiar #MeToo scenario of a powerful, middle-aged man abusing his potential mentoring role to assault a vulnerable young woman. Ito reported the incident to police; their initially unsympathetic attitude changed once they viewed the hotel’s security camera footage and interviewed witnesses. Soon investigators thought they had a strong enough case to press charges against Yamaguchi. But a plan to arrest him at Narita International Airport in June 2015 was called off at the last minute, apparently by orders of the chief officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Investigative Bureau.
Yamaguchi is a friend and biographer of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but he has vehemently denied knowledge of any moves by his political patrons and allies to protect him. However, suspicions remain that there was some governmental influence behind such an unusual, high-level decision to cancel Yamaguchi’s arrest warrant, in spite of the strong evidence the police had gathered.
A frustrated Ito eventually held a news conference in May 2016 when she filed an application to reopen her case. In the typical #MeToo scenario, her explosive allegations against Yamaguchi and suspicions of high-level interference in her case would have provoked a media storm, furious political recriminations and an outpouring of solidarity from feminist organizations, politicians, celebrities and academics.
But that did not happen. The mainstream Japanese media were slow to take up Ito’s case, even as foreign media organizations extensively covered her story. Given Yamaguchi’s connections in the conservative political establishment, there was a predictably polarized response to Ito’s allegations.
However, some prominent conservative women went the extra mile. The Liberal Democratic Party politician Mio Sugita accused Ito of bringing it on herself by getting so drunk. In an infamous video, she and other conservative women pundits mocked Ito and suggested she was trying to sleep her way into a job. A backlash against Ito grew, slurring her character and motivations. While feminists like Chizuko Ueno have spoken up for Ito, there was no mass feminist countermovement against the backlash.
It is true that Ito finally saw justice done in civil proceedings against Yamaguchi. On Dec. 18, the Tokyo District Court vindicated her sexual assault accusations and awarded her ¥3 million in damages. Eventually Japanese news publications editorialized about her case, and her book “Black Box” has raised awareness about sexual assault and about Japan’s antiquated laws for dealing with it. A “Flower Demonstration” movement is now protesting the failure of those laws to deliver justice to Ito and to other rape victims. Meanwhile, Ito has moved on to become a successful documentary filmmaker.
But how to explain the relative lack of powerful feminist organizations, celebrities and politicians who could have helped Ito fend off the backlash that eventually drove her into virtual exile in London? Certainly, international feminist responses to #MeToo have not been uniform.
In France, #MeToo protests provoked a vociferous intergenerational debate between celebrity feminists over sexual freedom and sexual harassment. In South Korea, high-profile incidents of sexual violence and harassment sparked a more unanimous mass protest movement, forcing a national conversation on South Korea’s deeply entrenched sexism.
In Japan, feminist voices have been raised for #MeToo, but they are often barely heard. So is it Japan’s ancient patriarchal, even “Confucian,” culture that is to blame for this difference? Not really. Ideologically loaded government policies and their structural consequences are more likely influences behind the low profile of feminist activism in Japan, and, like comb-overs for salarymen, those policies are of 20th-century vintage.
Sociological research by scholars such as Robert Pekannen shows that modern Japan’s civil society has not historically supported large, well-funded activist organizations. During the 20th century, Japanese governments followed a statist policy of restraining their growth, requiring organizations to undergo a complicated application process for nonprofit status, to possess substantial assets as a condition for registration and to accept onerous bureaucratic oversight once they were registered. Even after the passage of the 1998 NPO Law reforms, the application process remains complicated, and tax-exempt status is not often granted.
I noted in a previous Japan Times article how this system restricts the potential scale and political influence of Japan’s anti-whaling activism. Similar considerations hold for Japan’s feminist activism. According to freelance journalist and Women in Media Network member Chie Matsumoto, women’s rights organizations have at most a handful of part-time paid employees and are usually run by volunteers.
The Tokyo-based Working Women’s Network, an organization with an impressive track record of defending women against workplace sexual discrimination, is typical in this regard. It is run by volunteers and has a membership of 350 mostly retirement-aged activists. Its director, Shizuko Koedo, told me that it has not applied for NPO registration in order to “work freely as (we) like.”
Without NPO status, such organizations have limited capabilities to raise donations, rent office space and hire professional managers, lobbyists, researchers and media liason officers, to enlist media or celebrity support, to compel national debates on sexual discrimination or to influence policy formation.
Moreover, and under the influence of familistic policies legislated by postwar overnments into the 1980s, much civil society activity by women in Japan has been undertaken by housewives in neighborhood associations, or in grassroots food safety and family welfare organizations. Such organizations have little interest in activism against sexual violence and discrimination.
By default, Japan’s gender equality policies have often been formulated haphazardly and reactively through top-down, bureaucracy-driven initiatives.
In other countries, feminist organizations are more influential. The National Organization of Women, founded in the United States in 1966 and granted tax-exempt status in 1986, is a large organization with $1.2 million in revenue in 2017, full-time managers, lobbyists and researchers, and 550 branches across the U.S. with thousands of volunteers. Similarly, the Korean Women’s Associations United, an umbrella grouping of 33 organizations founded in 1987 to advocate for South Korean women’s labor rights and sexual equality, has amassed formidable resources and professional expertise since becoming a registered NPO in 1995.
Working both in adversarial and collaborative relationships with governments, these organizations have helped push through legislation promoting gender equality and raised public awareness of gender discrimination. In countries like South Korea, where gender discrimination is still rife, such organizations are gradually normalizing civic spaces in which women feel safer to raise their voices against gender inequality and sexual violence, even in the face of backlash.
There was little such supportive civic space awaiting Ito after her sexual assault. Instead, she encountered a police force lacking specialized female personnel to assist her, an uncooperative rape crisis center, and an indifferent media and growing backlash once she went public with her accusations. Hopefully, the experiences of Ito and of other women like her will encourage Japan’s feminist organizations to boost their ambitions, force further reform in Japan’s NPO laws and stake out a more expansive, assertive space in civil society.
Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.