TOKYO—“Sexual harassment isn’t a crime [in Japan],” Minister of Finance Taro Aso informed the world erroneously this month, and in this country where 30 percent of women suffer sexual harassment at work, it’s not surprising that Aso sparked some serious outrage. All over Japan, women marched in protest, informing the government that unwanted sexual advances weren’t something to be taken lightly. The protests were deftly organized in less than three days under the hashtag: #WithYou, an expression not only of victimization and anger, but of solidarity.
If anyone ever doubted that Japan deserved its lowly position in the world gender-equality rankings (114 out of 144 countries), the last 50 days should have convinced them that they were wrong. The U.S. State Department also seemed to agree this year). It noted that the law in Japan does not criminalize sexual harassment and “Sexual harassment in the workplace remained widespread.”
Whether it is ordering women to leave the sumo ring as they administer first aid to a dying man, sexually harassing a female reporter and then calling her a criminal, or telling women that they must get married and breed more—the old men running Japan make it clear they want women to be kept in their place. They seem to expect that at the very least, women should suffer in silence. That may be ending, but in a society where a woman speaking out is rare, even a slightly raised voice sounds like someone blowing a shrill whistle. Any woman who publicly comes out about enduring sexual harassment is seen not as a team player but as a trouble-making whistle-blower—especially in the media that should be reporting on the problem.
Why is sexual harassment and discrimination so prevalent in Japan? Let’s take a look.
Women Have No Place in the Ring
On April 4, a sumo-wrestling referee ordered a female doctor and other women out of the ring as they were giving first aid to the mayor of Maizuru City, who had collapsed while making a speech in the ring (dohyo) celebrating the annual spring tournaments. The women were considered to be desecrating the holy earth, and purifying salt was scattered on the grounds after the mayor and the women were hauled away. In many ways, this casual disregard for the abilities of the women, the sidelining of them, and their shabby treatment by the menfolk in the name of tradition, is a microcosm of Japan's sexist society.
Essayist Kaori Shoji, who writes on gender issues in Japan, sums up the absurdity. “This incident is by no means the first of its kind. Sumo is considered a sacred sport in Shinto, performed for the gods. Traditionally, women have been deemed impure, and it is feared they would contaminate the match if they got too close to the arena. In the minds of the traditionalists, women are dirty. After all, they menstruate, have babies, and grow old. How despicable! Sumo wrestlers on the other hand, are strong glorious creatures with shining flesh that is a testament to male power and the incarnation of ancient deity. Never mind that these wrestlers were born from women like everyone else. Never mind that some of sumo’s staunchest supporters are women. Never mind that the sacred arenas are actually made from packed dirt, and taken apart and shoveled away after each tournament, so really what’s the big deal?”
It’s just one incident, Shoji notes, but it shows how deeply rooted is the concept of dansonjohi, respect for the male, contempt for the female. “The logic goes like this: Tradition is sacred and must be revered. If sexism is a part of tradition, then it must be protected as well.”
Some historians trace the idealization of dansonjohi back to the Tokugawa era, but modern Japan still keeps the spirit of it alive, starting at the top. Women are not allowed to sit on the Imperial Throne—although there were empresses in the past. Even discussing the issue of female succession has been vigorously opposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Women also can’t keep a separate surname from their husband, and they can’t sully the grounds of Okinoshima, a practically deserted island and World Heritage Site.
The Minister of Finance and the Ministry of Misogyny?
The Sumo Association hasn’t relinquished its ban on women in the ring, but on April 28 announced it’s OK if a man’s life is in danger, nor has the ruling government said much on the subject. Prime Minister Abe—ardent nationalist, Shinto believer, and supposedly a proponent of “making Japan a place where women can shine”—has shed no light on his view of the Sumo Association ban.
On April 12, before the sumo scandal had time to fade from memory, Japan’s weekly news magazine, Shukan Shincho, published an exposé detailing the way Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda repeatedly harassed an unnamed female reporter. The magazine also released a tape recording of one encounter.
Fukuda, who has a bulldog face and thick gray hair, was the highest-ranked bureaucrat in the ministry. On the tape, you can clearly hear him saying, “Is it OK to bind your hands?”; “Can I touch your tits?” and other offensive lines. He later tried to explain that it wasn’t really a problem, saying, “Sometimes I have fun playing word games with girls at the club. I’m unaware of saying something that would be defined as sexual harassment.”
At “the club”? The implication was that his accuser was not a reporter but a barmaid, therefore it wasn’t an issue.
“The fact that Fukuda thinks describing the women he’s sexually harassing as a hostess makes it OK is very vexing,” says a female reporter in her forties who has been covering the Fukuda story for one of Japan’s largest newspapers. “It says so much about how things work here. I think it’s only in Japan where you have such a deep-rooted culture of cabaret clubs and hostess bars. Men go there and pay women to pour their drinks, fake affection, and put up with their antics. In Japanese society, any woman working outside the office is expected to be like a mama-san [manager] at a bar in Ginza—to laugh off lewd comments and unwanted touches, while using their female wiles and cuteness to squeeze as much money out of the customer as possible. For female reporters, instead of cash, we’re supposed to get paid in tidbits of information. Women in sales, are supposed to bring back contracts. And if you dare to complain about how the customers treat you, well then, you’re not suited for the job. It’s not a surprise that the reporter hasn’t gone public. To do so would be career suicide.”
Aso’s initial response to media attention was immediate action: He announced there would be no inquiry into the harassment claim. He then relented and by April 16 the finance ministry initially cleared Fukuda of all charges and he was given a stern warning. The ministry’s conclusions were greeted with great skepticism, and the government threw fuel on the fire by calling for “the alleged victims” to come forward and speak to the ministry, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to investigate the allegations.
This angered Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, who expressed dismay at the request. “Victims of sexual harassment can’t talk about it even to their families, that’s the reality,” she said at a press conference on April 17. “Normally, victimized women just can’t come forward and have talks with the people on the side of harasser.” While many of Abe’s female ministers seem to have been picked because they vocally echo the sentiments of his base, the notoriously sexist Shinto lobby, Nippon Kaigi, Noda wasn’t meekly playing along.
Fukuda threatened to sue the weekly magazine for defamation, which he has not yet done. He stepped down from his position on April 18.
The Midnight Press Conference and the Aftermath
Very late on that same day, just around midnight, TV Asahi Corporation held a surprise press conference and revealed that it was actually one of the company’s female reporters who was sexually harassed by Fukuda.
TV Asahi admitted that the reporter had been complaining about the harassment for over a year and a half, but admitted it had done nothing. The network explained that it understood why she went to the weekly magazine and asked it to publish the story. The reporter felt that was the only way to stop herself and others from being subjected to endless sexual harassment. Suddenly there seemed to be little question as to the validity of the story. Minister Noda announced she would be holding hearings about sexual harassment in the media.
It was a good call.
Of course, the Japanese media is part of the reason #MeToo has been slow to take off here. It’s a male-dominated industry, rampant with sexism as well, where female reporters are still expected to be either cute or beautiful and to use their female charms to coax scoops from the grubby hands of bureaucrats or out of tight-lipped detectives. Sexual harassment is considered an occupational hazard. On May 1, female journalists finally formed a group, Women in Media Network, to deal with such harassment in the workplace and in the field.
I spoke with several female reporters from major media organizations and they had all endured some form of sexual harassment—from creepy utterances like “I want to rape you” to groping and even having a hand thrust up their skirt—but most had never discussed it with their supervisors.
The National News Department (Shakaibu), which covers crime, corruption, and other social issues at most newspapers, is 80-90 percent male, as are most of the editors. There is a deep-rooted aversion to stories about sexual harassment. “When you bring up the issue in the office,” says one reporter, “men overreact. They fear a witch hunt and we just want to discuss it. It makes for a tough conversation.”
Another female reporter, who works in television, said, “Women fear that if they complain about sexual harassment they’ll be ridiculed or sidelined, and those fears are obviously correct. TV Asahi should be credited with finally standing up for their reporter. It’s a start.”
After the TV Asahi press conference, most mildly intelligent misogynists would probably bow down and make a perfunctory apology, but not the Abe administration. As debate on the mishandling of the problem spilled into the Parliament, an LDP lawmaker posted a photograph of some female politicians holding #MeToo signs on his Twitter account, commenting that none of these women were attractive enough to be sexually harassed. He later apologized.
Former Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura revealed the thinking of the administration in a speech he gave behind closed doors on April 22, at a meeting about revising Japan’s constitution to restore traditional values. “Maybe Fukuda made outrageous remarks,” he said. “But he was framed by this TV reporter who secretly taped him, and then she sold the tape to a magazine. That’s a crime, in a sense.” It should be noted that the reporter didn’t actually sell her tape to the magazine or make any money from going forward. Shimomura later apologized.
#WithYou Kicks Off
On April 23, at the Lower House of the Japanese Parliament, a group of lawmakers, journalists, researchers, and experts on gender-equality issues, held a meeting to discuss what needed to be done. At the meeting, the participants held up a new suggested hashtag for Japan’s gender-equality movement, #WithYou.
The hashtag is supposed to encourage victims of sexual misconduct to come forward but also to be used by those endorsing an end to sexual harassment or pledging solidarity. The meeting was widely reported in print and news media and slowly, in a way #MeToo did not, #WithYou has gained some popularity as a way of addressing the issue. Of course, both men and women have to actually talk about the problem for it to get any better.
One of many reasons sexual harassment in Japan has gone on so long is that many men are oblivious to the impact of own actions. As Kazue Muta, a professor who specializes in gender issues, wrote two years ago, “In many cases of sexual harassment, even when a woman shows discomfort with the statements a man is making, he doesn’t see the signs. And often, when the man in question is a colleague or a superior or a customer, women take this into consideration and don’t openly express displeasure, and the sexual harassment continues without the man realizing.”
The Final Straw: ‘Sexual Harassment Isn’t a Crime”
It was in this context on May 4, while on a trip to Manila, that Aso further aggravated the situation: “Sexual harassment isn’t a crime [in Japan],” he said. “It’s not the same as charges of murder or sexual assault.” He seemed to be dismissing the seriousness of sexual harassment, and he was also wrong. Sexual harassment, is in a narrow sense, already a crime in parts of Japan. On May 8, the Kanagawa Police arrested a city-hall employee for subjecting a high-school girl to 20 minutes of lewd verbiage, including such comments, as “I want to get my rocks off.” The police ruled it was a violation of the ordinance against troublesome behavior (persistent lewd and indecent language).
Of course, even if something is not a crime, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Even an advisory panel to the cabinet, the Expert Investigative Group on Violence Toward Women, issued a statement condemning the government’s handling of recent events. It condemned the preliminary inquiries into the matter as “lacking impartiality and not reaching the level of a real fact-finding effort.” It also specifically stated: “Sexual harassment blocks the progress of building a society where men and women respect each other and work as equals. It is an unacceptable violation of human rights.”
It would be great to see Abe, who has painted himself as a champion of women’s empowerment and equality, take a stand as well, perhaps by putting a #WithYou badge on his shirt. But he may have trouble doing even that.
Abe’s still knee-deep in another scandal involving the scuttling of the rape investigation of Shiori Ito, also a female journalist. In 2015, a senior police officer and career bureaucrat close to the prime minister inappropriately shut down the rape investigation after he learned that the suspect was Abe’s personal friend and biographer, Noriyuki Yamaguchi. An arrest warrant on rape charges actually had been issued, but it was pulled. Like the top-level bureaucrat in the finance ministry, Yamaguchi has denied any wrongdoing. But Ito is suing him for damages in civil court. It is unclear how much Abe knew about the way the case was derailed.
While many are asking Taro Aso to resign and take responsibility for the scandal, he probably won’t, and Abe certainly won’t ask him to do it. Meanwhile, top executives at the finance ministry did undergo their first workshop on sexual harassment about 10 days ago. The female lawyer who is in charge of educating them warned that, “Your understanding of what is acceptable behavior may be very out of sync with the rest of society.” But that may be wishful thinking.
Indeed, members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) keep demonstrating their world view is still deeply rooted in pre-war thought, before Japan had a constitution guaranteeing gender equality, popular sovereignty, and basic human rights. On May 10, another LDP politician, Kanji Kato. stated that single women were a burden to the nation and also added that “I always tell every newly wedded couple that they need to have three children or more,” recalling the pre-war slogan of Umeyo, Fuyaseyo (breed more, make more soldiers for the nation).
Prime Minister Abe’s long-running attempts to silence discussion of sexual enslavement of women in countries occupied by Japan before and during World War II, and to restore Japan’s pre-war constitution, doesn’t make him seem like a real champion of gender equality. Nor did he have any issues playing golf with President Donald Trump at a golf course in Saitama, which banned women from having full membership (until this month). It’s probably also not a surprise that the number of women voicing their support for Abe’s cabinet has fell into the 20 percent range in some polls.
For women who want a place in the ring, the message from Abe, Aso, and the LDP seems to be very straightforward: #NotWithYou.