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Reporter talks about hotbed of sexual harassment at Japan's SDF: interview

Former Ground Self-Defense Force member Rina Gonoi speaks about her experience of sexual abuse, which led to her resignation, at a news conference at the First Members' Office Building of the House of Representatives on Sept. 29, 2022. Pictured second from right is Kazuhito Machida, head of the Defense Ministry's personnel and education bureau. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- A former female member of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) who was sexually assaulted by several male colleagues received direct apologies from the members involved on Oct. 17. Rina Gonoi, 23, who was a private first class at Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, continued to speak out about her experience of sexual abuse even in the face of defamation.

    The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with Komaki Matsuda, a freelance reporter and alumna of the National Defense Academy who is familiar with issues regarding self-defense force officials, to talk about the SDF's culture and the kinds of measures the Defense Ministry should take to prevent a recurrence. Below is an excerpt of the interview.

    * * *

    Question: What did you think when Gonoi filed the case with authorities?

    Answer: I was outraged when imagining the amount of distress this caused Gonoi, and felt respect toward her courage to take action. When I interviewed self-defense force members after she filed the case, most of them said that they had never heard of such occurrences around them. At the same time, they all acknowledged the existence of sexual harassment and power harassment within the SDF. One factor behind the coexistence of such contradictory notions must be that the issues are not being detected properly and some people do not realize that certain actions are sexual harassment.

    Q: Is there an atmosphere that makes it difficult for victims to raise their voice?

    A: It's a hierarchical society, and it can be difficult to speak up. When I was in the National Defense Academy, I could only say "yes" to upper-class students even if I questioned whether something was right. Also, in the SDF organization that values "strength," the disclosure of harassment tends to be viewed as a sign of weakness. Moreover, in a world centered on competing physical strength, women tend to be viewed a bit lower in rank. A great number of women, who are an overwhelming minority, endure harassment while thinking that they can become a qualified member by putting up with harsh situations.

    Q: What was it like when you attended the National Defense Academy and the GSDF's Officer Candidate School?

    A: Compared to relationships at regular companies, members of the SDF have a close relationship as comrades, and sometimes sexual remarks are jokingly made among members. At the time, I used to point out remarks that were sexual harassment, but was told I was being a party pooper. An environment must be created to ensure that anyone who asks others to stop harassing them will not be dismissed.

    Q: How should the Ministry of Defense change its current system?

    A: There are already multiple consultation windows for harassment at the Defense Ministry, but it came to light in this recent case that they are not functioning appropriately. First, the content of consultations and reports must be properly reflected in measures taken within the organization. Gonoi said that though she reported the case to her boss, it was put aside and abandoned. Amid the dense human relationship of the SDF, even if a subordinate does something wrong, supervisors tend to develop sympathy about their future. First, the ministry must build a history of caring for victims and properly disciplining wrongdoers so that members will be convinced that if they report cases, they will be dealt with properly. By making use of the internet and other resources, an environment where it is easy to report cases must be created, as well as a system to regularly grasp the reality within the organization.

    Q: What should be done in terms of education to prevent harassment?

    A: The GSDF has a culture that differs from regular companies, such as huddling up and placing arms around each other's shoulders. If a negative list of things that should not be done is forced onto them, male and female members will not be able to come together as one, and it's possible that the female members too will feel uncomfortable. A relationship based on trust is indispensable for self-defense force members to fulfill their duties. To build trust, they must respect each other's humanity and care for their comrades. Following the recent sexual abuse case, the message to value each and every member must be conveyed. This can be said for male members as well. Not all male members are strong or like to talk about sexual topics. In some cases, they find it even harder than their female counterparts to say "no" amid male peer pressure. The SDF must be made into an organization where members, regardless of gender, value one another and avoid doing things that upset others.

    (Japanese original interview by Motomi Kusakabe, Political News Department)

    Komaki Matsuda is seen in this photo provided by her.

    * * *

    Regarding Gonoi's case, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during an Oct. 18 House of Representatives budget committee session that "both the forces on the ground and the Defense Ministry responded to the case inappropriately." He commented, "Harassment has emerged as issues in the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces on numerous occasions, and it has been pointed out that they have tendencies to cover up such cases." The prime minister expressed the intention to work to "root out all forms of harassment" through inspections and other means.

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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