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Editorial: Japan's Self-Defense Forces must fix its own vicious organizational culture

The Japanese Ministry of Defense has apologized over sexual violence inflicted on Rina Gonoi by her fellow personnel while she was serving in the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), after admitting to her allegations in their entirety.

    The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) must root out and fix its vicious culture of prioritizing the defense of the organization itself over the human rights of individual personnel, and make this the last time it must ever do so.

    Gonoi was subjected to malicious harassment by male colleagues in a GSDF company, including sexual remarks and physical contact. She had no choice but to leave the force, and took to the internet and other platforms to denounce the assaults.

    Sexual violence is intolerable. It is only natural for the perpetrators to be severely punished.

    On top of the abuse, suspicions are growing that the SDF covered up the harassment at an organizational level.

    Gonoi was told by the harassers to keep quiet. Although she complained about the assaults, her company commander neither reported the case to their superior nor launch an investigation. When she quit the SDF, the forces told her to sign a statement that she would raise no objections.

    The harassers denied sexually assaulting her during an in-house inquiry, but subsequently admitted to the allegations. As to why they initially gave false accounts, one of them reportedly explained, "I tried to cover for other personnel."

    Gonoi not only had her dreams of serving in the SDF dashed, but also had to speak out about what had happened under her own name to get the truth out.

    In response to the case, the Defense Ministry has conducted a special inspection of all SDF personnel to eliminate every form of harassment. Earlier this month, it set up an expert panel comprising lawyers and industrial physicians to examine the problem, including whether existing harassment prevention measures are appropriate.

    While the SDF has vowed to prevent a recurrence whenever bullying, power harassment or other abuse has come to light, we cannot say the situation has improved. In fiscal 2021 alone, the SDF received some 2,300 harassment consultations from its personnel.

    It has been pointed out that behind this lies intense peer pressure within the SDF while at the same time troops live and work in an environment beyond outside scrutiny. It is imperative to root out this organizational culture, not just take thorough recurrence prevention steps.

    Amid the drastically changing security environment surrounding Japan and frequent disasters at home, the SDF's role is becoming increasingly important. There is no way the forces can live up to public expectations and trust when their understanding of basic human rights remains so much in doubt.

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