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Saying #MeToo in Japan

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TOKYO — In late May, at a press conference in the Tokyo District Court, I went public about being raped.

In Japan, it’s unthinkable for a woman to do this, but I didn’t feel brave — only that I had no other choice.

On April 4, 2015, as I regained consciousness in a Tokyo hotel room, I was raped by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System and a journalist with close ties to Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.

I met Mr. Yamaguchi the night before to discuss work opportunities. My last memory of that evening is feeling dizzy in a sushi restaurant. As I went through the ensuing criminal case proceedings, I came to realize how Japan’s system works to undermine survivors of sexual assault.

When the arrest was canceled, I thought my only recourse was to speak to the media.

The investigation was scuttled throughout. This was, I and others suspect, partly due to political pressure, but also because of a medical, investigative, legal and, ultimately, social system that marginalizes and fails victims of sex crimes. I’ve had to fight every step of the way.

When I came forward, my case had been closed and I had just filed an appeal to have it reopened. This was rejected in September.

I went public to say that the entire mechanism of handling sexual crimes must change, and to ask that the Diet, as our parliament is known, stop delaying the proposed amendments to Japan’s 110-year-old rape law. To say that sexual violence is a reality that we need to talk about.

The investigation

From the medical professionals to the police, I encountered a lack of understanding about sexual violence and inadequate support for survivors.

After fleeing the hotel, as I became aware of the physical pain, I realized what had happened. The gynaecologist I visited provided little assistance. I called the hotline for Tokyo’s only 24-hour rape crisis center to ask which hospital to go to (rape kits are only available in certain hospitals in 14 of Japan’s 47 prefectures). I was told to come in for a preliminary interview before I could receive any information. I was too devastated to move.

Five days later, I went to the police. I was starting out as a journalist, and although I was scared, I didn’t want to hide the truth.

Initially, the police officers tried to discourage me from filing a report, saying my career would be ruined and that “this kind of thing happens often, but it’s difficult to investigate these cases.” I persuaded them to obtain the hotel’s security camera footage. The taxi driver’s testimony disclosed that I was carried inside the hotel. Eventually, the police took on my case.

I had to repeat my statement to numerous police officers. One investigator told me that if I didn’t cry, or act like a “victim,” they couldn’t tell if I was telling the truth. At one point, I had to reenact what happened with a life-size dummy at the Takanawa police station while officers took photographs. It was traumatizing and humiliating. A former colleague once referred to this procedure as “second rape” because it forces the victim to relive their ordeal.

In early June 2015, officers at Takanawa police station obtained a warrant for Mr. Yamaguchi’s arrest for incapacitated — or what is called “quasi” — rape.

Police planned to arrest him at Narita airport on June 8, but in a highly unusual move, the then chief of criminal investigation at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police canceled the arrest. My case was transferred to that department, where I was asked to settle out of court. Prosecutors filed papers against Mr. Yamaguchi, but in July 2016, they dropped all charges, citing insufficient evidence.

When the arrest was canceled, I thought my only recourse was to speak to the media. I spoke to journalists I trusted. No outlet, except weekly newsmagazine Shukan Shincho earlier this year, ended up reporting this story. The circumstances were politically sensitive, but Japanese media are usually silent about sex crimes — they don’t really “exist.”

It is taboo to even use the word “rape,” which is often replaced by “violated” or “tricked” if the victim was underage. This contributes to public ignorance.

Going public

My coming forward made national news and shocked the public.

The backlash hit me hard. 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. Fake stories popped up online about my private life with photos of my family. I received messages from women criticizing me for failing to protect myself.

Shiori Ito | Sono Aida

The mainstream media discussed what I wore. On social media, people said leaving the top buttons of my shirt undone undermined my credibility or explained why I was raped. One journalist had advised me to wear a suit to the press conference, but I refused. I was tired of being told how a victim should behave.

After the press conference, I avoided going out. When I did, I wore glasses and a cap to disguise myself, but people still recognized me and took pictures.

Those close to me supported me. I was heartened to hear from women who thanked me and said they’d experienced sexual assault, but felt unable to say anything.

Rape myths

I grew up in a culture and society where women are exposed to sexism and harassment from a young age. When I was 10 years old, I was groped by a man at a Tokyo swimming complex. My friend’s mother said it was my fault for wearing a “cute bikini.” Sexual molestation on public transport is a common problem that society trivializes. In high school, my friends and I faced this on a daily basis.

There is a strong social stigma associated with speaking out against sexual assault and a common perception that victims are less valuable to society. This is why many stay silent. Just 4 percent of survivors report rape to the police and when arrests are made, more than half the time prosecutors drop the charges.

Rape myths are widespread. Japanese society blames victims, saying it’s the woman’s fault — what they wear, where they go, how they behave.

It’s not that victims haven’t come forward; Japanese society wants them to stay silent.

When women speak out, their allegations are decried by dominant counter-narratives of “false accusations” or “false reports” in mainstream and social media. Men can even take out insurance against these accusations.

There is little concept of sexual consent in the law or in society. We need education about this in schools because we live in a society where “no” means “yes.” Rape is a genre in pornography. In relationships, some women think mimicking rape is desirable. People I’ve spoken to say they know when “no” means “no.” That’s a very Japanese way of communicating — not saying much but trying to read what the other person is saying.

According to a 2017 poll by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, 27 percent of respondents believed that sharing a private drink signaled sexual consent, while 25 percent took getting into the same car as a sign.

Shiori Ito speaks to reporters at a press conference | Tsutomu Harigaya

Many of the women who have shared their stories with me were assaulted in their workplace by their bosses. Sexual abuse happens whenever there is a power imbalance — which is everywhere in our male-dominated society.

In mid-October, around the time the Harvey Weinstein story broke, my book “Black Box” was published. Editor Izumi Ando had encouraged me to write about my experiences, saying that by going public, I’d cracked the door open.

The book’s title 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 that sort of thing.”

I am still fighting for justice. In late September, I filed a civil suit against Mr. Yamaguchi.

He has publicly denied my rape allegations and written against me.

Change, slowly

In the past year in Japan, we’ve made some progress. In July, our lower house of parliament (where just 10.1 percent of seats are held by women) amended the law pertaining to sexual assault to increase minimum sentences from three to five years, recognize male victims and widen the definition of what constitutes rape. But we need to keep pushing for more change. The age of consent is still 13. To establish a case, victims need to prove “violence and intimidation,” something that is virtually impossible.

Japan hasn’t had a big #MeToo movement, but what’s happened in the United States and elsewhere has provided an opening in our media to discuss sexual harassment and assault here, and to raise awareness. Some well-known authors — Mayumi Mori and Kyoko Nakajima, who contributes to Asahi newspaper, for example — have criticized society’s silence and are writing about their own stories of harassment.

A growing number of Japanese outlets — predominantly online media outfits — are paying attention to #MeToo. Journalist Akiko Kobayashi wrote in Buzzfeed about being sexually abused as a child. In December, the popular blogger and writer Haruka Ito (known as Hachu) also spoke to the publication about her experience with sexual harassment.

In private, women’s solidarity groups and others are quietly saying “me too.” For now, most can only whisper it. But, amid strong backlash against Hachu in recent weeks, more and more women are coming forward and sharing their stories of assault on social media.

Figurines of women by Tokyo-based manufacturer Kitan Club | Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Some MPs are now hoping to introduce a new bill to support survivors that would mandate, for instance, that rape crisis centers are installed in every Japanese prefecture. But for any real change to happen, society needs to get behind it.

We haven’t really had a #MeToo movement not because victims haven’t come forward, but because Japanese society wants them to stay silent. Society needs to listen, and the onus of breaking this silence shouldn’t just come from survivors. We have to change the system and the law in a big way and we can’t wait another 110 years to do this.

Shiori Ito is a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and the author of “Black Box” (2017). She is currently working on a documentary about sexual violence in Japan.

This article has been updated.

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