Shiori Ito. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.
“I was told not to bring shame on Japan, by spreading this story,” said freelance journalist Shiori Ito, at a meeting in New York City on the sidelines of the recent United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) talks.
In May 2017, Ito alleged publicly that she had been raped by a well-known television journalist two years earlier. She has spoken about her experience several times since, including in a book, ‘Black Box,’ (currently available only in Japanese).
Speaking out about sexual violence is not something that is frequently done in Japan, even in the age of #MeToo movements globally. “I face a lot of backlash,” Ito told me, “but this is something I have to share.”
In stepping forward with her story, Ito has been credited with opening space for profoundly difficult conversations about sexual assault in Japan, which remains deeply conservative socially and has a significant gender gaps in spite of its overall wealth.
“She broke Japan’s silence on rape,” said the New York Times. Tokyo Weekender, an English-language magazine, called Ito “the face of the #MeToo movement in Japan” and “one of the few brave voices to speak out” from the country.
Copies of Shiori Ito's book. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.
Ito says that she was sexually assaulted in a Tokyo hotel room by a well-known journalist with whom she met for dinner to talk about job opportunities. (He has publicly denied these allegations).
She is one of a small number of Japanese women who spoke out publicly about their experiences of sexual assault in 2017, a year which saw a global wave of allegations against powerful men in media, entertainment and politics.
Ito talks about her experience with perhaps surprising openness. Though, she said in New York: “I have been introduced as a first ‘silence breaker,’ but it is not true. There have already been so many women who spoke up... Society had concealed the truth.”
Nearly 1 in 3 Japanese women have been sexually harassed at work, according to a 2016 government survey. But women who speak out against such abuse are often blamed for ‘putting themselves’ in risky situations.
“I was vilified on social media and received hate messages and emails and calls from unknown numbers.”
In January, Ito wrote on Politico.eu: “I was vilified on social media and received hate messages and emails and calls from unknown numbers. I was called a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ and told I should ‘be dead.’ There were arguments over my nationality, because a true Japanese woman wouldn’t speak about such ‘shameful’ things.”
Eleven percent of Japanese men who responded to a 2017 poll by the national broadcaster NHK said that a woman who goes for dinner alone with a man is providing “sexual consent.” 27% considered a woman having a drink alone with a man to be providing such consent; 23% if she is wearing ‘revealing clothes; 35% if she is drunk.
There is an alarming tendency in Japan to minimise sex crimes by avoiding words such as rape altogether and referring to ‘mischief’ instead. Coerced sex without the use or threat of violence is not considered rape. The age of consent is only 13.
In her case, Ito says she went to the police who she said told her that these incidents are common but prosecutions rarely succeed. She says investigators later dropped her case despite having enough evidence to go forward.
In her article for Politico, Ito says the title of her book ‘Black Box,’ “comes from the term prosecutors and police officers used to describe how rape happens behind closed doors. They kept saying: ‘We still don’t really know what happened; only you two know.’”
In December 2017, the New York Times said: “Ito’s story is a stark example of how sexual assault remains a subject to be avoided in Japan, where few women report rape to the police and when they do, their complaints rarely result in arrests or prosecution.”
Yuko Watanabe. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.
Thousands of women from around the world gathered in New York during the CSW meetings, which ended on Friday 23 March.
Ito spoke at an event titled “Beyond the #MeToo movement: protecting silence breakers and changing social norms”; she also gave a talk at the Japanese-American Association Women in Business group, in Japanese.
Lawyer Chris Brennan also spoke at the first meeting. He has worked on several sexual assault cases in the US. Where perpetrators are colleagues or employers, they may use their status to silence or threaten victims into quitting their jobs, he said.
At the JAA event Kazuka Ito, also a lawyer and the founder of Human Rights Now, said: “We are not supposed to be the ones who are blamed, the one who harassed must be blamed. But this is how it works in Japan, still.”
From the corporate world, a former director at the Eurasia Group consultancy firm Yuko Watanabe added that in Japan, human resources systems are not set up to respond to reports of incidents like this.
Japan’s sex crime laws were only recently amended for the first time in 110 years.
Japanese law is not a great help to survivors of sexually assault, either. Japan’s sex crime laws were only recently amended for the first time in 110 years.
The definition of rape was expanded to include oral and anal sex. Minimum sentences for rape were increased, but only from three years to five. Conviction rates remain low.
Shiori Ito said at the JAA meeting that women who have experienced assault or harassment need more resources, criticising ‘outdated’ investigation methods on behalf of police and a lack of sufficient crisis services for women even around Tokyo.
Investigators may not have much experience working on these cases, she added, and may not respond appropriately to the psychological impacts of such crimes or the investigation process, in which victims may be asked repeatedly to remember and describe in detail the assault.
A meeting at the UN CSW in New York City. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.
At the JAA Women in Business group, Kumiko Hasegawa recalled an old Japanese saying: “Iyayo iyayo mo sukinouchi.”
This means that even though women say “no,” “no” is "yes" just reversed. While this damaging idea is not unique to Japan, it contributes to violence against women by encouraging men to ‘push past’ resistance.
This is a social rather than an individual problem, according to Ito, who talked about her campaign #WeToo to highlight how sexual abuse and harassment affects everyone’s lives in some way.
But for this campaign to be successful in Japan, many more women will have to come forward to expose the extent of this problem – and this won’t be easy.