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Photojournalist Hirokawa admits to coercing female magazine staff into sex

Photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa poses for a picture when he was the editor in chief of the monthly magazine DAYS JAPAN in this file photo dated August 2009. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Internationally renowned photojournalist Ryuichi Hirokawa, 75, has acknowledged to the Mainichi Shimbun that a report by the Shukan Bunshun weekly that he coerced female staff at his monthly magazine into sex and posing naked for photographs "included facts," admitting his mistake in thinking that the women had agreed to have sex with him.

A lawyer representing the company that publishes the "DAYS JAPAN" monthly also confirmed in a phone interview that the report that came out in the weekly's issue published on Dec. 26 was "largely true."

Two women who said they were victimized by the journalist detailed in interviews how they were driven into situations in which they could not turn down demands from Hirokawa, a man of power at the magazine and in the photojournalism community. One of the women described the process as "brainwashing."

The publisher has said in a statement that company officials are interviewing Hirokawa and his victims about what happened, and it plans to publish an article reviewing his actions in the last and March issue of DAYS JAPAN, to be published in late February.

According to Bunshun, a total of seven women complained of sexual abuse by Hirokawa, including a woman who said was coerced into having sex with him at a hotel about 10 years ago when she was a college student aspiring to become a photojournalist. He had her come to the hotel telling her that he would teach her how to shoot photographs because she needed to improve, the weekly reported.

Hirokawa was quoted as telling the magazine that he had no intention of using his position and the women "were attracted to me or admired me." The photojournalist went on to say, "It was not my fault" that the women felt hurt, according to Bunshun.

In response to the report, Hirokawa issued an apology dated Dec. 26, saying that he would like to extend a "heart-felt apology to people I inflicted pain on due to my insincere responses." The publisher of DAYS JAPAN also announced that the company removed Hirokawa as its representative director.

--- 'Not aware of his own power'

Hirokawa is known internationally as a "human rights photojournalist" critical of state authorities and for covering the Palestine issue and the impact of nuclear disasters around the world. The weekly's report shook society as it went against his values.

One of the two women victimized by Hirokawa told the Mainichi that she didn't recognize she was being harassed at the time. "I thought back then that Hirokawa was "such a person of great stature who was incapable of violating human rights." The woman added, "I thought it was my fault that I was hurt by Mr. Hirokawa."

She also pointed out that the photojournalistic community has structural problems. Hirokawa served as a judge for many awards that young photographers are trying to capture to establish their professional careers, and he was "the power in the community," said the woman. "I thought that I would not be able to survive in this sector if I was thrown out of DAYS JAPAN," she explained, adding that it was difficult for her to regard herself as a victim because of her strong desire to make headway in the world of photojournalism.

The woman continued that people at the magazine's editorial office and in the industry who were aware of Hirokawa's harassment should be questioned. "They knew that some people were crushed by his harassment, but used his power for their own ends. That's why he had trouble facing up to the fact that he was an aggressor," she ventured. "It's really outrageous that young people who couldn't get over what happened to them had their dreams dashed."

The Mainichi asked Hirokawa about his view of her observations that he was a "person of power." In his written reply to our questions via his lawyer, he said that he never thought that he had such power. "I thought that people interacting with me were telling me what they were thinking and I presumed that I was responding to them fairly. I regret that I didn't try to think from their position," said Hirokawa, emphasizing that he was not aware of what he was doing to his victims.

-- Why victims were silent

That explanation, for the victims, is far from enough.

The woman said she intentionally suppressed he painful memories, thinking that "not remembering it means it never happened." She was finally able to face up to her experience when she learned about other women who said they were harassed. "For the first time, I was able to think that what happened was not because I was wrong," the woman said, adding that she wanted to continue thinking about why the damage was done and what can be done to prevent similar cases.

As for his perception of the victims' difficulty in expressing what they felt about Hirokawa's actions, he stated that he looked back on his actions after people around him pointed out that the women who didn't have power or a position equal to his would find it difficult to express their true thoughts. "I was devastated to realize that I caused deep pain to others but didn't understand what I did. I guess their silence became longer because of my failure to reach that realization for some time." Hirokawa went on to say that what he did was "tantamount to denying my own activity of reporting on hidden facts of aggression."

Another woman who said she was victimized by Hirokawa testified that the working environment at the monthly magazine was extremely poor. The would-be journalist joined the publication as a full-time editorial staff member in the winter of 2014 when she was in her late 20s. She had read all works by the photojournalist, and admired his passion to face off with the powers that be. But what was awaiting her was a tough reality. With only about six full-time staffers including herself, the woman was driven by work from day one and she nearly missed the last train almost every day. She eventually began to miss her train and often spent nights at an internet cafe near her office.

Hirokawa was a really demanding boss in the office, she said. "You must tackle your assignments without sleep because you are not capable," he was quoted as saying by the woman. "I wouldn't have hired you if I'd known your abilities," he told her on another occasion, according to the woman. She also received harsh emails from him. "I was so afraid of getting fired and felt responsible for my failure to do the job properly that I couldn't think on my own in the end," she said.

Regarding the situation in his office, Hirokawa revealed in his response to the Mainichi that long work hours were a norm "because of the nature of the job of reporting and editing, and due to the challenging business situation we were in." As for the woman's complaint, he acknowledged that he yelled at staff and did send stern emails demanding staffers shape up and work better.

--- 'We were all brainwashed'

In one incident she cannot forget, Hirokawa came close to her when the woman was alone in the office editing material on a computer. He was in a good mood at that time, stood behind her and placed his hand over hers using a mouse. Terrified, the woman left the scene quickly telling her boss that she needed to go to the bathroom.

Hirokawa said of this incident, "I'm sorry but I do not recall it."

After such experiences, the woman reached her physical and psychological limits. She began to feel nauseous whenever she heard Hirokawa's shouts; her periods stopped, her stomach ached and disturbed her sleep and she lost her appetite. She resigned one and a half months later. "I could not forgive myself for having no choice but to resign. My self-esteem was in tatters and I was hurt," she said.

Before she left the publisher, she complained to her immediate superior about Hirokawa yelling at her, telling him that Hirokawa's actions were unbearable. But the superior did not listen to her, saying that Hirokawa "was not doing something especially outrageous," and didn't do anything to improve the long working hours. "Tough working conditions and power harassment have "brainwashed" all employees," she said.

--- Facing up to tough past is no easy task

Why did it take so long for the DAYS JAPAN victims to come forward? Questioned Mayumi Taniguchi, associate professor of Osaka International University who leads a group to explore sexual harassment in media organizations: "People facing a really scary, harsh and outrageous situation tend to try to get along with it and maintain themselves, and this is not limited to harassment victims."

The gender law specialist pointed out that these victims may find strength to face up to the outrageous scenes in their past as they acquire knowledge and experience. "They may find courage when they share their experiences with other victims. Tackling a disgusting past you don't want to remember is no easy task to do alone."

Taniguchi thinks that the #MeToo movement against sexual violence has helped encourage Hirokawa's victims. "The movement allows victims to share their tough experiences to confirm with each other that they are not wrong and they are not alone. Accusing the perpetrators is not the focus," says the professor. Taniguchi points out that Hirokawa's victims are at a stage where they have difficulty embracing their painful past. "I want society to better understand people who had similar experiences but could not face up to themselves."

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

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