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Editorial: Undermining sexual harassment claims causes international loss of respect

It is almost impossible to grasp the true extent of sexual harassment in Japan because the damage caused by such cases is hardly reported.

The sexual harassment case involving former Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda highlighted such difficulties.

The Finance Ministry initially only reprimanded Fukuda verbally without conducting an investigation into the case. However, after the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho released an audio recording of Fukuda's remarks online, disclosing the harassment, the ministry launched a probe. Yet the ministry then came under fire for acting inappropriately when it asked victims to come forward and report damage.

Fukuda repeated his unreasonable explanation that his actions "didn't constitute sexual harassment when looking at the whole picture," and said that he intended to take legal action. What is most serious, however, is that the Finance Minister, who is in a position to supervise the vice finance minister, does not appear to understand the essence and seriousness of sexual harassment.

When commenting on the case, Finance Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, covered for Fukuda and even suggested the victim trapped him.

"Do you mean Mr. Fukuda's human rights shouldn't be respected? ... There are views in society that he was framed," Aso said.

The ministry eventually admitted that Fukuda sexually harassed the woman and announced punitive measures against him -- in a press conference that Aso did not attend. Aso's remarks expose a lack of enthusiasm about squarely dealing with the sexual harassment issue.

This is a shameful case that people can hardly believe happened in the government of a developed country in the 21st century. One cannot help but wonder why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has advocated women's empowerment as a key policy issue, is not up in arms over the case.

Some people have even expressed the opinion that women's work should be restricted. Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, the nation's largest business lobby, described Fukuda's actions as "extremely dishonorable," but stated that a female reporter's one-one-one meeting with a man "could invite various misconceptions." Considering that many interviewees are men, Sakakibara's remarks could be interpreted as meaning that female reporters should refrain from having one-on-one interviews with men at night to prevent misunderstanding. Moreover, the fact that Sakakibara assumes only sexual harassment between different genders is outdated.

Such misplaced remarks by influential figures could send the public the mistaken message that it is acceptable to criticize sexual harassment victims, and could encourage online slandering of victims.

As long as society continues to take a lenient approach toward sexual harassment cases, the number of women who fall victim to such harassment will not decrease.

Since the victim in the latest case is a reporter, quite a few people called into question the ethics of news organizations. However, sexual or power harassment victims must be protected regardless of their occupations, be it in the police force or political sphere.

It is extremely difficult to prove sexual harassment. If there is not sufficient objective evidence, individuals who are accused of sexual harassment could file a libel suit against those who make complaints. The audio data in the latest case served as indisputable evidence.

When the reporter in this case told her employer, TV Asahi, that she had been sexually harassed, the company should have protested to the Finance Ministry and reported the case. The broadcaster's failure to do so apparently forced the reporter to provide information to the weekly magazine. If she had abandoned such a move, Fukuda could still be making remarks deemed to constitute sexual harassment even now.

The latest case is just the tip of the iceberg. Some victims have suffered mental illnesses without being able to speak out about such incidents and have even taken their own lives. Even reporters, who have the means to reach out to the public, could be subjected to slander once they try to fight sexual harassment. The latest case could leave many women feeling helpless and force them to keep silent about being harassed.

Any kind of harassment is wrong. However, most sexual harassment victims are women, in contrast to power harassment victims that often include men as well. There are many cases where sexual harassment damage is not redressed without effective preventive measures, largely because there are too few women in positions to lead the way in implementing those measures.

In any society where working women are viewed as sexual objects and those who disrespect women's dignity are not seriously called into question, it is not only women that are adversely affected by sexual harassment. Such a society will lose both dynamism and respect from the international community.

In Britain, a statue of activist Millicent Fawcett was installed in front of Parliament last week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in the country. The statue has a flag bearing her message, "Courage calls to courage everywhere."

Any country in which a person's courage to protect fundamental human rights is suppressed and where budding bravery is stifled, cannot occupy an honorable place in the modern international community.

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