TOKYO–A civil court here handed down a landmark ruling last week in the case of freelance journalist Shiori Ito, 30, who alleged she was raped in 2015 by a Noriyuki Yamaguchi, 53, a good friend and biographer of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The court ruled Yamaguchi must pay over ¥3.3 million yen ($30,000) in damages.
Since Ito went public with the charges in 2017 after police efforts to pursue the case were quashed, she has become a vital symbol for the still fledgling MeToo movement in Japan; her story is a microcosm of the problems women face here in a nation where there are far too many men who share the attitudes of a Harvey Weinstein.
Yet this victory in a civil case also reopens the very ugly question of why Yamaguchi never was prosecuted for his alleged crime. The police had a warrant prepared on sexual assault charges and were planning to arrest Yamaguchi at Narita airport on June 8, 2015, but were stopped at the last minute by a high-ranking police bureaucrat known as “Prime Minister Abe’s attack dog” who then scuttled the original investigation.
The Daily Beast has reported on this case from the very start, following the chain of evidence and documenting the suspicious twists.
The civil lawsuits for damages incurred during sexual assault were filed by Ito in September of 2017. She accused Yamaguchi, a former Washington bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting Service, of sexually assaulting her on April 4, 2015, inflicting mental and physical damage.
Ito asserted that she met Yamaguchi at a restaurant after he offered to help further her career as a journalist. She claimed that after a few drinks she lost consciousness. When she awoke she was in his hotel room and he was raping her. She said she believed she may have been drugged. Yamaguchi later countersued, claiming that Ito had defamed him, and sought 130 million yen ($1.1 million) in damages.
The plight of Shiori Ito became world-wide news and the subject of a BBC documentary, Japan’s Secret Shame, because in Japan it is even more rare than in other countries for victims to come forward with allegations of sexual assault.
Interest has been heightened since the alleged assailant is a close personal friend of the prime minister and has written two books about him. Add to that the role a close ally of the prime minister played in scuttling the investigation and it’s not surprising that cries of foul play have been heard inside and outside Japan.
On December 18 the Tokyo District Court, Judge Akihiro Suzuki presiding, found Ito’s account of the attack was consistent and believable. The court noted that Ito had reported the rape to the police, sought the support of medical professionals, and that the testimony of witnesses and surveillance footage from the hotel all indicated that Ito was unconscious and unable to consent to sexual intercourse.
Even before reaching the hotel, the court noted, the semi-unconscious Ito asked the taxi driver to take her to the nearest train station, but Yamaguchi insisted the driver take the pair to the hotel.
In addition to these findings, the court dismissed Yamaguchi’s defamation claims, effectively throwing out his counter lawsuit. The judge indicated that the information disclosed by Ito was in the public interest, meant to show the obstacles that rape victims face in society, and therefore was not slanderous.
Yamaguchi says he will appeal the ruling, but he might want to reconsider in light of what appears to be damning new evidence.
On December 19, after the trial was over, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, which first brought the case to light in a series of exposés going back to 2017, published an explosive scoop.
Shukan Shincho obtained a copy of a written statement from a key witness that had been submitted to the court too late to be included in the civil case. The witness is identified as a doorman at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel, where Yamaguchi took the intoxicated Ito. The doorman had spoken to the police before an arrest warrant had been issued when the investigation was first under way and gave formal testimony as evidence thereafter.
However, in the aftermath of the retracted arrest warrant, and a failed appeal to the Prosecutorial Review Board, his testimony never saw the light of day. He was not informed by the courts about the progress of the case and only discovered Ito took it to civil court when the hearings were nearly over.
In a desperate effort to speak up about what he saw that night, the doorman came forward with his statement just as the hearings had ended. Ito’s lawyers asked for the court proceeding to be reopened, but the court rejected the appeal and his statement was not submitted as evidence.
In the published interview with Shukan Shincho, the doorman talked about the first time he spoke to the police on the matter. He said his memory was jogged when an investigator told him “the taxi driver suggested that you may have heard more of their conversation”—that is, the exchanges between Ito and Yamaguchi as she tried to avoid accompanying him.
That night, the doorman had opened the backseat door of the taxi in the hotel driveway. “I made eye contact with Yamaguchi,” he said, “and I got an impression that he was a scary man, and he was pulling the arm of the woman who sat in the other seat, urging her to get out.”
“The woman insisted that she had to clean up the mess, she had made a mess, she sounded like a young child and I realized that she had thrown up on the floor of the car,” the doorman recalled. “When the man tried to drag her out of the car from the door on her side, she made gestures of protest, refusing to get out, and insisting on cleaning up. I thought she must have really wanted to clean or maybe she was using that as an excuse to get away from him. The man grabbed her arm and said ‘don’t bother.’”
“She could barely stand or walk on her own, barely conscious and completely intoxicated repeating ‘I have to clean up,’” the doorman said, “but still she was pulled towards the hotel and I remember her letting out a loud wail as though she were crying.” He also noted the arrogance of Yamaguchi, who failed to apologize and did not offer to pay a cleaning charge, which is the custom in Japan when one has defiled a taxi.
What followed was caught on the hotel’s security camera. Yamaguchi dragged a limp and incapacitated Ito into the hotel lobby.
The doorman recalls the police saying, “with testimony as clear cut as this, this case is ours [to win].” However, despite this testimony and other evidence, the case was dropped.
Ito, at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, speaking in English, said, “When I went to [the] police for the first time after the incident, the first word that I got was these things happen and we can’t investigate, which was quite shocking to hear. There’s so many reasons behind it why they use this excuse. After I heard that comment, I sort of pressured them: ‘Well I know which hotel I came out [of] so please check the CCTV,’ and they did. They found the CCTV and they said this is something, it is criminal, but yet they didn’t want to file the case, and I asked why again. The investigator [said] that it is because he is pressured by prosecutors because our conviction rate in Japan is very high, and I believe it’s something to do with it.”
Prosecutors only want to bring cases they can be absolutely sure they will win—typically their conviction rates are 99 percent—and sex crimes are hard ones to make. “That was quite surprising,” said Ito. She also noted the lack of female police officers. In 2017, fewer than 10 percent of the police force were women.
“Police officers need to be educated how to deal with these victims who are traumatized with sex crimes. But my case for instance, I asked for a female police officer [and] I talked to her and after two hours she said, ‘I’m sorry I’m from the traffic department and I can’t take your report so please talk to my male co-worker who is a male investigator.’”
As Ito noted, in Japan, not only are the prosecutors and police reluctant to deal with sexual crimes against women, even if they get their day in court, Japan's predominantly male judiciary is likely to find they didn't resist enough. And thus the rapists often go free.
After the court’s ruling in favor of Ito last week, several of the previously loud and abusive defenders of Yamaguchi suddenly went quiet. The most conspicuous silence came from Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and protege of the prime minister, Mio Sugita, who previously gained attention for anti LGBQT remarks.
In the BBC documentary, Japan’s Secret Shame, Sugita claimed Ito “was at fault as a woman, drinking with a man until she lost consciousness,” defending Yamaguchi and men as the “victim in these cases.” And her tweet from last June has come back to haunt her.
Sugita wrote that Ito did not deserve to be dealt with as a genuine victim. “I don’t forgive sex crimes. It is unacceptable to force a victim to take drugs, or drag her into a car, and do things like rape her and I think the punishment should be more severe. But in an outrageous/unreasonable case like Ito Shiori—I feel anger as a woman that she is treated the same way as other rape victims who are absolutely not at fault.”
The court essentially found that Yamaguchi did the things that Sugita says she can’t forgive and her underlying theme that rape victims were often somehow at fault, was not well-received either. At this point in time, she still has made no comment on the court’s findings.
While some critics of Ito suddenly shut up, the netizens and trolls of Japan quickly rose to the occasion and launched a stream of invective against Ito so offensive that media outlets were at a loss what to do. The Mainichi newspaper disabled the comments on the video of Ito’s statement outside the courthouse immediately after the verdict, but one can easily watch the same video on other news channels and the comments keep rolling in: “I want to rape her, too,” was a typical comment. Others included, “This is clearly a modern comfort woman’s scheme,” referring to the Asian and European women who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during Japan’s imperial era. For the right wing, “comfort women” is a term used to denigrate any independent woman as a willing prostitute, intent on cheating men of their money
In his press conference on Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Yamaguchi accused the court of ignoring his claims and alleged there are contradictions in Ito’s statements. He called her a habitual liar and hinted that he was now going to sue several media outlets, including The New York Times and the BBC. The only thing that seemed to give him pause was when he noticed that Shiori Ito was in the room listening to him speak, and taking notes.
When The Daily Beast asked him, as a veteran journalist himself who had covered crime in Japan, did he know of any case in which the police had rescinded an arrest warrant for a felony, he did not answer the question. He probably doesn’t want to answer; numerous sources, lawyers, former prosecutors and police say that it is almost unprecedented for an arrest warrant not to be executed.
For better or worse, this is how the Japanese criminal justice process typically works in felony cases. The police investigate, find evidence, then consult with the prosecutors. If the prosecutor agrees, then they go to the court and get a warrant. They make an arrest.
The suspect is held for up to 23 days in jail, interrogated every day, and then a final decision is made on whether to prosecute. They can then be rearrested on different charges. The former CEO Of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, was put through this meat grinder and spent over 120 days in jail. His trial has not yet started.
That wasn’t the case for Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi did insist that despite his close personal friendship with the prime minister, he had never asked for political interference on his behalf. He says he didn’t even know he was under investigation when the Takanawa police reluctantly let him depart without putting him in handcuffs as they had planned on June 8, 2015.
For the most part, at the press conference Yamaguchi let his lawyer say the unpleasant things he didn’t want coming out of his own mouth. The lawyer’s supposed “bombshell” claim that Ito must be lying because she wrote in her book that her relative was a prosecutor when he was not was effectively dismissed two hours later. Ito clarified that her relative was an assistant prosecutor–fukukenji–which in Japan, is rarely differentiated from a regular prosecutor (kenji).
The circumstances that led to the criminal investigation of Yamaguchi being shelved may never be fully known. The civil court did not touch upon the previous events and it is nearly impossible to sue the Japanese government for failure to do its fiduciary duty.
The Abe administration has a long history of shredding documents and cover-ups, so getting to the truth will be hard. Perhaps the last word should go to Ito, who made this plea to the media in her closing remarks, when asked about whether there was political interference in her case. Her voice cracked as she spoke.
“What I want to ask for you guys is that I need your help to find out these things. I can’t do this all by myself, and I’ve been thinking when is the right time to do more investigation around it because I can’t [alone]. I need your help.”
While the Abe administration seems to be rather unhelpful in her case, or to women in general, maybe there are some in or outside of the administration who are willing to help.
Mari Hirayama, a Professor in Criminal Procedure and Criminology at Hakuoh University, considers the verdict a step forward for sexual assault victims in Japan. “She could not get justice [from the] Prosecutorial Review Board, but now she is admired worldwide. I hope this [case] inspired the reform for the Penal Code planned next year.”
Indeed, the common sense ruling of the Tokyo District Court is a leap forward for equal rights in Japan, establishing one thing that should already be crystal clear––if a woman is forced to have sex without her consent, that is a crime.
The crusty old men who rule Japan were able to stop one arrest, but Ito has started something unprecedented in this country. The attempt to muzzle the rape investigation has backfired and instead ignited a movement, lead by Ito, who is no longer a victim but a hero for many. In its schemes to silence Ito, the government unwittingly gave voice to an army of women who are fed up with suffering silently and will not be stopped until true justice is served.