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Sexually assaulted ex-Japan SDF member shares experiences in bid to usher in change

Former Ground Self-Defense Force private first class Rina Gonoi, who spoke up about being sexually abused by her colleagues, is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Oct. 5, 2022. (Mainichi/Motomi Kasukabe)

TOKYO -- The Defense Ministry recently acknowledged that a female Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) private first class at Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture was sexually assaulted by several male colleagues. The former member, Rina Gonoi, 23, continues to speak out about her experience even as she faces defamation, and shared her thoughts in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun.

    -- "It's only natural that it was recognized"

    The Ministry of Defense recognized three cases of sexual violence against Gonoi, and ministry executives offered an apology at the end of September.

    "I was filled with frustration and sadness," said Gonoi, who had been speaking out about the sexual abuse she endured from when she was still a member of the GSDF. She would not have had to leave the forces if sexual violence against her had been immediately recognized and an apology had been offered by the perpetrators.

    "It's only natural that it (sexual violence) was recognized. Everything came too late," she complained.

    -- Looking up to the SDF after a disaster

    The head of the Defense Ministry's personnel and education bureau, Kazuhito Machida, center, offers an apology to former Ground Self-Defense Force member Rina Gonoi, left at the House of Representatives' First Members' Office Building on Sept. 29, 2022. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    The 23-year-old first became attracted to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Gonoi was living in the city of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, at the time, and was affected by the disaster.

    Female GSDF members helped residents at the evacuation center by installing baths, among other tasks. Watching their hard work, she recalled thinking, "That's cool. I also want to be able to help others."

    Gonoi had practiced judo since she was in kindergarten and made it to the top 16 national tournaments during high school. It was also her dream to compete in the Olympics by entering the Physical Training School JSDF, under the jurisdiction of the SDF.

    -- Sexual harassment as "communication"

    After Gonoi was assigned to Camp Koriyama in September 2020, she was subjected to daily sexual harassment including verbal sexual abuse, having her chest touched, and being kissed. Both men and women were victimized by similar acts, but few people around her apparently rebuked such acts. "I don't know if that was a result of the rank-based society or if it came from fear of being disliked," she said.

    "Many people don't even realize what they're doing is wrong," Gonoi said. She said that sexual harassment is even perceived by some as means of communication, but pointed out, "While the perpetrators have no sense of guilt, there are many victims who pretend to be unconcerned but are hurt."

    In August 2021, several men pushed Gonoi down and fondled her body in her dormitory during training. She reported the incident to the department in charge of personnel affairs, but was told they "could not obtain testimony" over the incident. Gonoi said that this was because her colleagues had coordinated their stories for the investigation.

    Gonoi and her colleagues were not on bad terms. As there were witnesses, she thought that if she spoke up about the incident, someone would testify about the sexual abuse. "I was extremely shocked when I was betrayed," she said.

    Gonoi later filed a damage report with the GSDF's police unit, which sent papers on three male members to prosecutors on suspicion of indecent assault. However, charges against all three were dropped in May 2022.

    This photo provided by Rina Gonoi shows her when she was still a Ground Self-Defense Force member.

    -- Pondering suicide

    The 23-year-old was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder after the August 2021 incident, and took a leave of absence from January 2022.

    If she left the SDF, it would become impossible for her to help people on the scene in the aftermath of earthquakes and typhoons or pursue her dream of becoming a judo athlete. She agonized over whether she should forget her ordeal for the sake of her dreams or continue fighting injustice.

    She recalled, "I lost all my goals and nothing seemed enjoyable."

    One night in March, as she was thinking about killing herself, a magnitude-7.3 earthquake occurred. "It was then that I suddenly realized that I shouldn't die," Gonoi said. What kept her going was the painful experience of losing a classmate in the Great East Japan Earthquake. She decided to fight to the end "for the sake of those wanted to live but couldn't."

    Immediately after leaving the forces in June 2022, Gonoi uploaded a video on YouTube complaining about what she endured, which went viral online. In August, she collected 105,296 signatures online demanding an impartial investigation by a third party, and submitted it to the Defense Ministry.

    Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada ordered a special defense inspection to be conducted on all SDF personnel in early September.

    Some GSDF members admitted to sexually assaulting Gonoi. The Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution also determined that not indicting the suspects was inappropriate, and prosecutors have reopened the case.

    -- Eyeing improvements in spite of slander

    After speaking out about the incident, Gonoi was tormented by a series of slanderous comments about her on the internet. She received messages including ones telling her, "Don't lie," "You should die," and, "I'll kill you" one after another.

    Though she was prepared to be slandered, the messages caused more pain. However, that did not stop her from taking action. She explained, "I didn't want people to think I wasn't telling the truth."

    The 23-year-old is continuing to demand a direct apology from the perpetrators. "I want to hear why they lied in the internal investigation," she said.

    Since leaving the SDF, she says she hasn't been able to have fun or laugh when doing anything.

    When Gonoi called for people to provide information on the internet, she was contacted by over 140 people claiming to be active SDF members.

    She hopes for the establishment of a system to enable victims to report incidents to a third-party organization and allow third-party investigations.

    At the end of the interview, Gonoi told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I still think the SDF is a good profession. I'd like to think about how we can improve it with everyone else."

    (Japanese original by Motomi Kusakabe, Political News Department)

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