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As #MeToo spreads internationally, social climate may be behind stagnation in Japan

Victims and others march in downtown Hollywood, California, to protest sexual harassment on Nov. 12, 2017. (Mainichi)

Last autumn, the #Metoo movement began in Hollywood and spread across the world, shining a light on sexual harassment and assault, but it has yet to gain momentum in Japan.

    "#MeToo? I don't have a perception of it other than just some far away happening in the American entertainment industry," said a 37-year-old woman on the career track at a major financial firm with a glum expression. The company where she works is touting progress for women both inside and outside the workplace, but sexual harassment is her daily reality.

    For example, one major client once told her, "Women are good at being supportive. Men are supposed to work hard, and I don't like women like you who take the lead." If she didn't take a male coworker with her to a business negotiation, he would grow angry and say, "They only sent a woman? Are they trying to make a fool of me?"

    While this behavior is not sexual assault or sexually-explicit language, it's still sexual harassment. Still, the woman has never turned to her colleagues for help, and has never even considered filing a complaint with the company over such harassment.

    "No one will think more than 'see, women are emotional,' and I will just be taken off the team in charge of that client. It's because I let the comments pass that I can continue working," she explained. "Actually, everyone tends to distance themselves from the women who report misconduct to the company sexual harassment consultation office." For women who sympathize with her, the #MeToo movement might as well be taking place on another planet.

    Around Europe and the Americas, powerful figures falling one after the other to sexual harassment claims have gained attention. In South Korea, a governor, and possible presidential candidate, resigned after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, sending shockwaves through the political sphere.

    But then we come to Japan. While some voices have been supporting the movement, the issue has not risen to the level of a social problem being covered daily in the media.

    "It's because Japanese women have been placed in a weaker position than women in the West," declared France-based author Junko Takasaki, who has penned such works as a book about how France solved the issue of a declining birthrate. Investigating #MeToo movement in the Americas and Europe, Takasaki noticed a relationship between public response in each country and the ranking of the country on the Global Gender Gap Report, put out by the World Economic Forum each year. Countries that had achieved gender equality to a greater extent and ranked at the top of the list also showed a more positive understanding toward the movement. However, out of the 144 countries covered in the 2017 report, Japan ranked a dismal 114th in gender equality.

    According to Takasaki, in countries with higher indexes, women who report abuse are less likely to be attacked by those around them for "exaggerating" or being at fault themselves. But even in France, which ranked 11th, actress Catherine Deneuve caused a stir when she said that men should be free to flirt with women as they wished.

    "The basis for her statement was a social consensus that 'because sexual harassment and power harassment are absolutely terrible things, they can be solved in a calm manner without having to raise one's voice and causing a commotion,'" Takasaki explained. "But in Japan, if you remain silent, it's like the sexual harassment never happened, and if you make a claim, then you open yourself up to bashing. It's only natural that the movement can't spread in that kind of social environment."

    Even with the rise of the #MeToo movement, there are still many victims who are scared to raise their voices, let alone name their abuser and file a formal report. Some are even firmly against reporting anything. But there is more meaning to the movement than just that. Osaka University professor of gender studies Kazue Muta explained, "Celebrities who complain of being sexually harassed by identifying themselves are garnering a lot of attention, but the goal is not just the accusation. All around the world, women are speaking up to say no to sexual assault and harassment."

    Still, it is difficult to make such claims even anonymously in Japan.

    "Japanese women are taught from a young age to follow the will of others. That's why even if they feel that something is wrong, they tend to hesitate to speak up," Muta continued. "For example, even if a woman is able to voice her accusation, her attacker can continue to say that she "consented," and the woman herself often ends up being the one ostracized."

    There was a prominent case of victim-bashing in Japan last year, which Muta called doubly evil: "It's like telling someone who just got enough strength to say enough is enough to just keep suffering in silence. The fact that the movement is not spreading is proof that Japanese society is not truly committed to ending sexual harassment and violence."

    Playwright Oriza Hirata is seen in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, on April 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

    While #MeToo caused waves beginning in Hollywood, the theater group "Seinendan" led by playwright Oriza Hirata has been actively working to stamp out sexual harassment since its conception. But even then, several women came forward accusing a male stage director who was not a member of Seinendan of sexually harassing them by hinting that he would help the victims perform in the theater group. The director admitted to the allegations and apologized, but Hirata ruffled feathers when he wrote on his blog, "I hope he is never involved in the world of theater again."

    What made Hirata so angry was not only because the director had used the name of the group when committing his offenses, but because Hirata had wracked his brain over anti-sexual harassment policies and built up experiences through trial and error for the last 20 years. The theater group has rules, such as an older member of the group may not ask a younger member of the opposite sex out for drinks alone, or joke that something is sexual harassment, or if any harassment is suspected, then the stories of both parties are heard equally without preconceptions -- and more.

    "There are many people who believe that the emotional scars of sexual harassment are trivial in comparison to sexual assault. But the truth is, whether it is sexual harassment or assault, the deep wounds left behind are the same."

    Up until now, Hirata has cut ties with important business partners or had members performing vital parts quit all because of sexual harassment. Even then, Hirata has not once wavered from his convictions.

    "People who harass others are like a blood clot in the organization, and can cause many other problems," Hirata said. "On the other hand, by simply increasing the number of people who take care not to harass others, the operation of the whole organization moves more smoothly."

    Hirata believes this: "Even if we are strict on harassment, it doesn't necessarily mean that an organization or society will become rigid. It's the opposite. Especially in Japan, if the men who tend to take leadership positions do not have a perception of the problem, then we can't put an end to harassment."

    Novelist Asako Yuzuki, who has written about women who experienced date rape and revenge porn, laments, "A society where women aren't sexually harassed will be easier to live in for men too. But even so, when it comes to this issue, debate is deeply divided between men and women, and victims are blamed for having a part in their abuse."

    "Men and women both have to join hands together to promise not to suppress those who are in a weaker position than themselves. Everyone should be able to live without needlessly having to endure," Yuzuki suggests for how Japanese society must proceed in eliminating harassment. "If we can spread that new set of values throughout society, then harassment where someone holds down their victim from above will certainly end."

    Whether a day will come in Japan when "#MeToo" can change from meaning "I have also been sexually harassed or assaulted" to "I am also happy" is still yet to be seen. (Japanese original by Shoko Tamura, Tokyo Evening Edition Department)

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