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Japan lagging behind in attitude toward punishment for power, sexual harassment

This screen capture shows the International Labor Organization's web page detailing discussions at a June ILO meeting on harassment and violence in the workplace.

TOKYO -- Just this June, the United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) began work toward adopting a treaty to prevent harassment, and on Sept. 19, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's Labor Policy Council began serious talks on the subject. While industry workers and experts see the council discussion as a rare chance to put anti-harassment laws on the books, it is unclear if the government will act.

Under Japanese law, there is nothing that prohibits harassment. Only company-led measures to prevent sexual harassment are required under the "Act on Securing, Etc. of Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment." Even then, the law does not have provisions on how to recognize damage caused by harassers. This is seen as problematic as it does not aid victims seeking redress. There is no stipulation concerning power harassment at all.

Japan's stance toward harassment is lax, even looking at laws around the globe. According to a 2018 World Bank survey, countries like Japan with no laws establishing criminal punishment or civil compensation concerning harassment made up less than 40 percent of the world's 189 countries and regions. Among the 36 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, Japan was joined by only Chile and Hungary.

"There are several thousand cases of people seeking consultations about workplace sexual harassment at labor bureaus every year. But efforts to set up a legal framework (to handle such cases) are not progressing. It is because Japan is lacking in awareness of human rights," said Shino Naito, a vice senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, who specializes in workplace harassment both domestically and internationally. "Other OECD member nations begin raising awareness about human rights during primary education."

According to Naito, the European Union has moved forward in promoting anti-harassment legislation. "In 2002, the EU directed its member nations to draft regulations prohibiting sexual harassment. This stemmed from a foundational ideology of outlawing discrimination and protecting human rights," explained Naito.

In Japan as well, there is the criminal charge of forced indecency under the Penal Code and the ability to seek compensation for damages due to unlawful behavior under the Civil Code, said Naito. "However, the actual application of the criminal law and seeking civil redress is difficult, and Japan is strikingly behind when compared to other nations."

At an ILO general assembly held in Geneva, Switzerland, from the end of May into June this year, the issue of harassment in the workplace was brought up in discussions. The meeting decided to draft the world's first guidelines including a clear definition of the behavior and prohibition stipulations, and to encourage member countries to adopt a treaty aiming to promote the introduction of relevant legal frameworks in signatory states.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) attended the meeting from Japan. Rengo expects that the treaty and growing international discussion about the issue will be a push to get anti- harassment laws on the books.

Back in Japan, the Labor Policy Council is discussing harassment issues. It is the first time that workers and management have sat at the same table since the inflammatory sexual harassment comments made by a former top bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance exploded into a national scandal.

On that table for discussion are the merits and demerits of laying a legal framework to deal with power harassment. The panel is also hearing arguments over including a stipulation specifically prohibiting sexual harassment in the equal opportunity in employment law. The ministry plans to release a summary of the council's discussion before the end of the year.

However, it is still difficult to say that the government's stance is promising. According to the ILO's Japan office and other people with relevant knowledge, Japan and the U.S. did not show their support for the adopted ILO policy of introducing the harassment prevention treaty, saying that the definition of harassment was too broad. Many other countries and regions, including EU states, China, Canada, African nations backed the initiative.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did say during a government meeting in June, after the labor organization's general assembly, that "sexual harassment is a clear violation of human rights." He did not, however, seem to have a problem with repeated statements made by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso in defense of the top finance official who allegedly sexually harassed a female reporter.

The prime minister declared with conviction that "Japan will stand at the top" of the creation of international regulations in fields such as labor" on Sept. 3 at a rally in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election in the suburban Tokyo city of Tachikawa. "If that is really the case," some associated with labor unions charged, "then he must work to enact anti-harassment laws in Japan."

The world now has the impression that Japan is a sexist country lacking awareness about human rights, said Waseda University professor Mutsuko Asakura, who specializes in labor laws. That perception, explained Asakura, "was born out of the sexual harassment scandal involving a former top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, and a subsequent remark by Mr. Aso that 'there is no such thing as criminal sexual harassment,' and other comments made by politicians."

Asakura pointed out that in order to show that this is not the case, "there is no other way but to appeal to the international community by introducing domestic legislation that would allow the ratification of the ILO treaty."

It is for this reason that Asakura attaches importance to discussions at the labor ministry council. The professor said that the current provision requiring employers to take measures against sexual harassment is not enough. "The minimum requirement is to define harassment, including power harassment, as a violation of human rights, and to make clear stipulations outlawing the behavior," emphasized Asakura. "This is the time to discuss the changes as the topic gains both domestic and international interest."

(Japanese original by Haruka Udagawa, General Digital News Center)

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