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Tokyo court ruling on Shiori Ito defamation a step forward against 'second rape'

Shiori Ito, center, is seen at a press conference after the Tokyo District Court's ruling was handed down, on Nov. 30, 2021, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

TOKYO -- A manga artist and two others were ordered in a Nov. 30 ruling to pay damages to journalist Shiori Ito, after the court recognized they defamed her in tweets and retweets that portrayed Ito as lying about being subjected to sexual assault.

    In the suit launched by Ito with the Tokyo District Court, compensation was sought from manga artist Toshiko Hasumi and two men on the basis that false information in the tweets she produced and they retweeted had damaged Ito's dignity, among other claims.

    The issue of "second rape," in which individuals coming forward as victims of sexual violence are attacked for doing so and endure a second dimension of abuse, is a serious problem. Experts told the Mainichi Shimbun that the recent court ruling should be "taken as an opportunity for society to discuss second rape."

    In June 2020, Ito submitted to the Tokyo District Court a suit seeking damages of 5.5 million yen (about $48,500) from Hasumi, and a total of 2.2 million yen (some $19,400) from two men who retweeted Hasumi's posts.

    According to the complaint, between June 2017 -- immediately after Ito first went public that she was raped by former Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) Washington Bureau chief Noriyuki Yamaguchi -- and December 2019, Hasumi posted five tweets containing illustrations of a woman who appears to be Ito, along with captions including "totally failed to sleep her way to get a job." Ito argued that the posts infringed on her dignity because they contained offensive material that gave the impression she falsely claimed she was sexually assaulted.

    Regarding Hasumi's illustrations, the ruling asserted it "gave the impression she is an individual who stated falsely that there had been sexual abuse, which lowers Ms. Ito's societal esteem." It also ordered Hasumi to pay 880,000 yen (about $7,750) to Ito on the basis they were "offensive acts that exceed the limit of what is permissible." Two men who retweeted Hasumi's posts were each ordered to pay 110,000 yen (some $970).

    In May 2017, Ito came forward using her own name to reveal that Yamaguchi raped her. In September 2017, she launched a suit against Yamaguchi at the Tokyo District Court on the grounds that she had "experienced mental distress due to unwanted sexual acts." In December 2019, the court recognized she had been assaulted, and ordered Yamaguchi to pay damages. Yamaguchi objected to the ruling and appealed, and the case continues to be fought at the Tokyo High Court. A criminal investigation opted not to indict Yamaguchi.

    Shiori Ito is seen at a press conference after the Tokyo District Court's ruling was handed down, on Nov. 30, 2021, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. She told reporters that she had felt encouraged by a hashtag that roughly translated to "I support Ms. Shiori Ito." (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

    Ito's decision to publicly reveal her name and face led to her being seen as a trailblazing figure in Japan's #MeToo movement opposing sexual violence. But soon after she spoke of her abuse in a public forum, criticism and slander toward her swelled online.

    Critic Chiki Ogiue collected and analyzed large numbers of online posts relating to Ito made between 2017 and 2020. He says that of the around 210,000 tweets he collected, over 30,000 of them -- about 15.1% -- include content constituting "second rape" abuse toward Ito.

    At a press conference after the court's ruling, Ito revealed that during the legal proceedings, the argument from Hasumi's side had developed into maintaining that "if a woman puts out her name and face and cries while she complains of her treatment, people around her easily believe her."

    Ito criticized their position, saying, "The people who have had these experiences (of sexual violence as I did) are being spoken about in this way, while it pains them to tell people what happened. Not just me personally, but they (the illustrations) will make many people suffer if they're exposed to them, and therefore this issue can't be allowed to slide by calling it 'satire.'"

    She also shed some light on her thinking, saying, "Victims of sexual violence are rarely given justice under Japanese law, and even now the situation makes it difficult to come forward. I want to change that. And I don't want to become a negative example that makes people think, 'If I talk about it I'll end up like this.'"

    To protect herself from online slander and abuse, Ito still cannot freely use social media, and she reportedly has people she knows confirm emails she receives. "When we talk about defamation and verbal assault, then there are some who say they're part of freedom of expression, but I feel like my freedom of expression is being stolen. For someone whose work involves communication (as a journalist), it is a really hard situation. When talking about 'freedom of expression,' I want people to think together about whose freedom is being protected," she said.

    Kazuko Ito, a lawyer and secretary-general at international human rights nongovernmental organization Human Rights Now who has continued to engage in activism toward legal resolutions for victims of sexual violence, said regarding Hasumi's tweets, "Their expressions suggesting that she (Shiori Ito) sold sex impugn her character." She also asserted that the posts "ended up stimulating online abuse of Shiori Ito."

    Kazuko Ito said, "In the first place, most sexual violence takes place behind closed doors, so people who weren't at the scene should be careful about words or actions that casually deny abuse." She then stressed: "What people around those who report assault need to keep in mind is that, even if a person's claims are in their minds, saying that there was no violence itself risks becoming second rape. What's more, for a third party with no connection to the issue to publicly mock and verbally attack a victim is nothing but second rape."

    Shiori Ito, center, is seen at a press conference after the Tokyo District Court's ruling was handed down, on Nov. 30, 2021, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Yoshiya Goto)

    According to the lawyer, the term second rape had already been introduced to Japan in the 1980s. "The reason this level of abuse toward Ms. Ito has taken place even now is likely to be because society as a whole isn't at all aware of the concept (of second rape). I hope the ruling can be an opportunity to allow wider recognition of what second rape online is, and to foster societal discussion on the issue."

    In the recent ruling, apart from Hasumi, two men who retweeted and spread her posts have been recognized as infringing on Ito's dignity by doing so, and were ordered to pay damages.

    Lawyer Yuichi Nakazawa, an expert on rights infringements taking place online, focused on the view expressed in the judgement that "as long as there are no special circumstances, retweeting is an expressive action that indicates thoughts of agreement with the original tweet's content." Nakazawa pointed out that "the point clearly stating that retweets are in principle expressions of 'agreement' is a ruling that goes further than the recent trend (of judicial precedents)."

    Yamato Sato, a lawyer who has been part of many cases involving victims of online slander and others, said regarding the ruling's significance, "The accumulation of court rulings like this that recognize the responsibility of people who retweeted sends a message to society that 'slander should not be propagated.'"

    But he also maintained that the sums ordered to be paid were low when compared to the amount sought. "It cannot adequately reflect the seriousness of the damage caused. This amount doesn't even recoup the expenses incurred in launching the suit, and it absolutely won't be enough to cover the psychological damage. I believe the court should have more seriously confronted the issues of making up for the damage."

    At the press conference, Ito praised the acknowledgement of legal responsibility for retweeting. "That it was recognized that retweets are an action expressing yourself, even though they are expressions from others, is a very significant ruling in the current social media environment."

    She added, "Although retweeting might be an easy action to take, it is more violent act than putting a poster up in the street, or shouting through a megaphone. Words that cannot be rescinded are left behind. I want each and every person to feel the responsibility of disseminating information."

    (Japanese original by Aya Shiota and Haruka Udagawa, Digital News Center)

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