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Japanese transgender sex abuse victim calls for wider inclusivity in protests, society

"I hope that a system where LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence can feel safe to consult with someone will be established," says Yu Hotta (name changed for privacy), a transgender man, expressing his sincere wish as a victim, in this photo taken in Tokyo on March 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

TOKYO -- Protests against sexual violence are gaining momentum around the world. In Japan in recent years, the #MeToo movement and "Flower Demo" rallies, where people gather once a month in various locations to protest, have played a role in raising awareness.

    On the other hand, however, are some victims of sexual violence with mixed feelings about the Flower Demo movement. One of them is Yu Hotta (name changed for privacy), a transgender man in his 30s assigned female at birth who says that as a child he was sexually abused by his older brother. "I feel people like me are made to feel we don't exist" he said when sharing his experiences.

    "I'm glad to see men coming, too." Hotta was at a loss for words after being approached by a staff member on his first visit to a Flower Demo held at square in a west Japan city he lived in at the time.

    The protests began in Tokyo in April 2019 to protest acquittals in a string of sexual abuse cases, and have since spread nationwide. People gather holding flowers as a symbol of protest and give speeches, or sometimes stand in silence to demonstrate their intentions. For Hotta, it was scary and difficult to face that he was sexually abused. Even so, he participated because it was an opportunity for him to raise his voice against sexual violence at an event happening in a place he had lived in since childhood, somewhere he passes through often.

    But, Hotta, who lives as a man, was not considered a "victim" because of his appearance. "People like me aren't expected to be victims," he said. Participants gave speeches in turn, but continued talking as if women were the only ones suffering from sexual violence. Hotta was also encouraged to speak, but could not find the words and refused to take the microphone.

    The sense of alienation Hotta felt was not limited to the treatment of his gender. "If my abuser had been a stranger, would I have been able to hold a grudge as simply as these people?" Even though he knew he shouldn't compare himself to them, he couldn't dispel that feeling.

    Hotta doesn't have many childhood memories. His parents divorced when he was in elementary school, and he lived with his mother and older brother, who was three years older than him. He fragmentarily remembers his mother slapping his brother's hand hard, telling him he wasn't holding his chopsticks properly, and feeling scared as the rice bowl fell on the floor and broke. He later learned his mother's harsh behavior toward his brother, and her daily bad-mouthing of her ex-husband to Hotta, constituted abuse.

    Hotta was 6 when his brother began sexually abusing him in their bedroom and in the family car, places where their parents were supposed to be near. Hotta didn't understand the meaning of what was being done to him, and thought it was an extension of play. As a result, he didn't feel strong revulsion toward it, and nor did he resist. He later felt ashamed because of this, and blamed himself. The abuse continued until Hotta reached junior high school. When his brother was a high school student, he began to physically abuse Hotta, including punching and kicking him. Hotta sometimes feared he would be killed.

    It wasn't until Hotta became a university student and moved out of his parents' house that he realized his painful experiences were sexual abuse. From childhood, Hotta felt uncomfortable being treated as a girl, and there was friction between him and his parents, and with school. At university, he became aware he is transgender, and told others about it. Finally, as his life settled, he became able to face his past experiences. But, when he started researching sexual violence from books and other sources while suffering flashbacks, he found he had a new problem.

    This photo taken on March 8 shows a book on abuse that Yu Hotta (name changed for privacy), a transgender man, tried to read when he was a university student to learn more about what happened to him. He says he still hasn't read the whole book due to stress. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

    Every book he opened on sexual violence considered only that women were victimized by men, and it seemed also like children were victimized only by adults. He couldn't find a case similar to him -- a transgender person victimized by a child close to him. As a result, he's not sure if what happened to him can be called "sexual violence." Many years have passed since this unresolved feeling emerged.

    After graduating university, Hotta found a job that involves working with children, which had been his long-held dream. It was there he had the opportunity to learn about abuse and sexual violence, and finally came to understand he was in fact a victim of sexual violence. He once blamed himself, but now knows that he didn't have to. Aged 30, he felt for the first time the wish to consult a professional organization. But, he didn't know where he could go to get help without concern as a transgender person.

    Let's go back to the Flower Demo in 2019. Hotta reflected on his thoughts for a month after attending the rally for the first time, and decided to prepare a script for his speech. At the next event, he took the microphone and said, "I am a transgender person and a survivor." Survivor, in this case, is someone who has survived sexual violence.

    "I feel that sometimes people talk about sexual violence as if it's only about 'women' who the majority identifies as 'women.' Unfortunately, sexual violence can happen regardless of one's sexuality," he continued.

    "I'm here to help change the situation, even if just a little, for my friends suffering because they can't talk about it at counseling agencies or in the LGBT community.

    He then urged those who support victims of sexual violence to include LGBTQ and other sexual minorities in their support.

    His speech was met with applause and he felt the atmosphere was warm. He subsequently attended the demonstrations multiple times, and felt speeches by participants were less likely to limit victims to "women," and some mentioned the existence of LGBTQ people.

    Last spring, however, another experience left him with mixed feelings. Generally, Flower Demos are held on the 11th of every month, but in March 2020, about a year after the rallies began, many were held on March 8, International Women's Day. Hotta felt that the space for sexual violence survivors was again being limited to "women." Since then, due to the effects of the coronavirus and other factors, he has stayed away from the demonstrations.

    On its website, the Flower Demo states that it is "a place where anyone can participate in solidarity with victims of sexual violence of all nationalities, genders and sexualities, and calls for the eradication of sexual violence."

    Hotta also understands the importance of fighting against discrimination towards women. "Women are more likely to be oppressed and more likely to be victimized. I don't want to neglect discrimination against women at all," he said. But that's what makes him feel conflicted.

    Recently, Hotta met a woman involved in an organization for victims of sexual abuse by close relatives. He learned that she, too, was victimized by her brother, who was close to her in age, and that she was publicly sharing her story. "It wasn't just me," he thought. He met someone similar to him for the first time. When he saw her living her life with dignity, he felt the clouds lift from his sight, and he was filled with a relief that brought tears to his eyes.

    But as the group was only for women, he still felt "there was no place for me." Even so, it was a source of support to know there are people in similar situations. At the Flower Demo, he felt he could tell people he was a survivor of sexual violence, but could not reveal his abuser's identity.

    He is still unable to consult professional organizations. In 2019, he found positive results in psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, but stopped receiving it because he felt uncomfortable that the counselor repeatedly treated him as a woman. Specialized institutions are rare, especially in rural areas, and it is difficult to find a replacement caregiver right away. He feels that counseling and medical institutions must improve their systems so that sexual minorities who are victims of sexual violence can comfortably receive consultations.

    Yu Hotta (name changed for privacy), a transgender man, is seen being interviewed about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, and expressing hope that it may help others, on March 8, 2021, in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

    He also sincerely wants professionals involved with children to acquire knowledge and skills regarding sexual violence. As a child, Hotta made calls for help in his own way, but no one noticed. At the same time, he thought he must never let anyone know about his sexual abuse. "I wish someone had noticed sooner," he said.

    Even now, when he is able to live more peacefully than before, it is still hard for him to talk about sexual violence. Even so, he agreed to be interviewed by the Mainichi Shimbun because he wants society to know about the existence of LGBTQ victims of sexual violence and individuals sexually abused by those close to them.

    "I think if you're transgender and you were sexually assaulted in childhood, people can have prejudice that the incident somehow influenced your gender identity," Hotta said. He says that is why victims like him are treated like they don't exist and aren't spoken about. He added that he hopes his story will be useful to others who have endured the same experiences.

    When a transgender child is a victim of sexual violence by someone close to them, what difficulties do they face and how should society care for them? The Mainichi interviewed Akane Kosaka, 32, who has been involved in mental health care for LGBTQ children and youths in the United States, and since last year has been active in Japan as co-chair of the voluntary organization Proud Futures.

    "In many cases, society does not assume the existence of transgender people, so they are under a lot of stress even in their daily lives. When the stress and trauma caused by sexual violence is added, they are going to face huge challenges," she said.

    She also pointed out that tendencies to see sexual violence as "shameful" make it even more difficult for transgender people to find support. "Many individuals feel it is difficult to find support from people who can properly understand and relate to them in an accepting way, and there are many who do not expect to find people like that."

    Some U.S. studies show that in sexual violence cases between family members, siblings are more likely than parents to be perpetrators. On the other hand, "When the perpetrator is a child in the family, it is sometimes difficult for the victim to recognize it as sexual violence. In addition, it is often difficult for the victim to admit the fact over concerns of shame to the family, which is why I think many victims remain unheard," said Kosaka.

    It is difficult for many people to imagine a young child as a perpetrator. But Kosaka explained, "Sexual violence occurs through sexual behavior or the use of body parts considered sexual in power relations. In dysfunctional families with parental abuse of children or with a lot of secrecy, perpetration by children can happen easily, and it is quite possible and does happen."

    When a sexual violence perpetrator is a family member, it is very difficult for a child to report it to anyone. What kind of attitude should adults around them, such as those in schools and communities, take?

    "Thinking that sexual violence by family members against children is impossible, denying its existence or making it a taboo, leads to harm being dismissed. It is necessary to create an environment where the possibility of sexual violence is properly brought to our attention, and also to build a relationship of trust with children so that they can confide in us when something happens to them," Kosaka said.

    (Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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