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Woman who served in SDF sues state, assailants over sexual harassment

The Ministry of Defense in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A woman who was sexually harassed while serving in Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force said Monday she has filed a civil lawsuit against the perpetrators and the state in the latest development in what has become a major scandal involving the organization.

    In the suit filed at the Yokohama District Court, Rina Gonoi, who served in a unit at Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, is seeking 5.5 million yen ($42,400) in damages from the five perpetrators for causing mental distress and an additional 2 million yen from the state for its failure to prevent abuse and investigate her claims.

    The 23-year-old said during a press conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo that she filed the suit not out of ill feeling toward the Self-Defense Forces but the desire to "prevent these things from happening again."

    "I love the SDF, and want the organization to become one that upholds a strong sense of justice," Gonoi said, adding, "I believe the fight needs to be open and clear in order for that to happen."

    Gonoi was subjected to a wide range of abuse on a daily basis from fall 2020 through August 2021. After quitting the GSDF in June last year, she began posting online under her own name about her abuse and submitted a petition to the Defense Ministry calling for an investigation.

    The ministry confirmed the claims and apologized to her last September before dishonorably discharging five male members of the GSDF and suspending the unit commander for six months the following December.

    "(The state) is responsible for neglecting an investigation," Gonoi said, adding that she might have been able to stay in the force if her claims had been properly scrutinized.

    Her lawyers told the press conference the abuse exceeded harassment and constituted criminal behavior as she endured groping and kissing, among other actions, in addition to daily sexual comments.

    In the event that the five perpetrators cannot be held accountable for their actions, Gonoi will demand that the state pay the 5.5 million yen she is seeking from them as Japan's compensation law stipulates that the state is responsible for damage caused by civil servants.

    During talks in November on a settlement with three assailants among the five, Gonoi was initially offered about 300,000 yen per person, while their lawyer made remarks that Gonoi's side took as questioning whether they could be held responsible.

    She later asked for written clarification for the small amount offered and the remarks, but has not received a reply. Negotiations had effectively ceased.

    "I was hesitant about conducting the fight through lawyers, but it really felt like (the assailants) were not remorseful," Gonoi said. "I thought that, at this rate, it may be impossible to prevent harassment from happening again."

    The government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, said at a press conference, "Relevant ministries will examine the details and handle the matter accordingly as soon as the complaint is received."

    He added that the Defense Ministry was looking to review preventative measures against harassment.

    The ministry launched in September last year a special inspection across the whole of the SDF to investigate harassment cases, and has received around 1,400 complaints.

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