Cracking Japan’s Systemic Sexual Abuse Culture

This article discusses sexual violence in detail.

In 2006, Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement to help sexual abuse survivors heal from their trauma and seek justice. Almost a decade later, #metoo went viral, as victims across the globe came forward with their stories.

Mika Kobayashi and Jane Fisher are to Japan what Burke is to the US. After Kobayashi was kidnapped and raped by multiple men, she authored a book chronicling the incident and the mistreatment she endured from police officers. Fisher—who was raped by a US serviceman—also went public with her story, noting that the police made her feel like a criminal. 

Shortly after, Shiori Ito—a young reporter date-raped by a prominent journalist—shared her story in the documentary Japan’s Secret Shame. She expressed that the police did not take her case seriously and employed abusive interrogation practices. One tactic stood out—investigators forced her to lie down on the floor and re-enact the assault. The incident was retraumatizing; “They were asking ‘was it like this?’ and taking photos,” Ito recounted. “That was like a second rape.”

Beyond institutional failures, Ito noted the public backlash she received, something Kobayashi and Fisher also endured. All three received threats and nasty comments, an unsurprising reality for survivors who share their stories.

According to 2014 statistics, “Japan’s incidences of rape are astonishingly low — less than one incidence per 100,000 people, in contrast to the almost 37 per 100,000 in the US.” At first glance, this low rate paints Japanese survivors as liars. However, less than five percent of incidents are even reported; for children and LGBTQ+ survivors, this rate is likely lower.

Japan’s male-dominated, conservative society makes it difficult for victims to come forward. Legal red tape further complicates reporting and silences survivors. The Me Too movement never impacted Japan the way it did the US—but it did encourage a new phrase: We Too. 

As Monica Fukuhara—a survivor who helped organize the movement—explained, We Too helps victims rally with allies on social media. Instead of one person coming forward and facing all the backlash, a group can join to protect them; it’s an “I am Spartacus” movement. The phrase shows solidarity and tells victims that there are people who will support them. 

Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) aid victims in the fight to have their voices heard. These NPOs can challenge the Japanese government to cut the red tape barring survivors from coming forward. In a nation which lags behind the rest of the developed world on gender equality, NPO lobbying could pressure the government to update sexual exploitation laws and institute greater protections. Additionally, NPOs can provide resources for survivors and address the government’s shortcomings. 

A Reinforced Sexual Abuse Culture

Sexual assault is rampant in Japan. Schoolgirls express how common it is on public transportation, with the daring assertion that “every girl was a victim” at some point. When professors or teachers commit sexual abuse, loopholes allow them to transfer schools with impunity. Catholic clergy abuse men, women, and children alike, knowing that church leadership won’t condemn them when stories emerge. Women are expected to endure sexual harassment and abuse in order to climb the corporate ladder. No matter the situation, sexual abuse exists.

The World Health Organization defines “sexual violence” as any unwanted sexual act or advance—the offender’s relationship to the victim has no bearing. Yet, there are misconceptions throughout the world about this term. 

Like the US, Japan has common phrases that belittle the agency and accusations of survivors. Until the 1990s, people referred to sexual harassment as a mere “annoyance” or “nuisance,” downplaying the abuse. More recently, people exclaim that “Saying no is also an expression of fondness.” When survivors come forward, comments like “they were asking for it” or “they deserved it” follow. If a victim is silent or does not actively resist, the public takes that as consent. 

Japan’s judicial system has done little to address this misinterpretation. When the government passed the Penal Code in 1907, it stipulated that rape must involve intimidation, violence, or taking advantage of the victim’s state of mind. Otherwise, a victim must prove that they actively resisted to launch a successful case. The law also limited the classification of rape, defining it as forced vaginal penetration with a penis. 

These provisions remained untouched for a century, even as consensus acknowledged other types of penetration as rape. After the legislature amended the bill in 2017, it recognized forced anal and oral sex; it also imposed harsher penalties for rape. However, it did not include penetration by a foreign object, denying some victims their day in court. 

The legislature also maintained the Penal Code’s active resistance requirement, reaffirming that victims ought to act a certain way—even as they undergo trauma—to gain the state’s recognition. It’s no wonder many cases end without a conviction.

In 2019, a string of acquittals triggered massive outrage. The most controversial came when a court found that a father had raped his nineteen-year-old daughter, but did not convict him because it couldn’t decide if she’d resisted. Since then, protesters have gathered on the eleventh day of every month to demand justice. Dubbed the “Flower Demo” movement, women armed with microphones—their faces hidden to avoid public scrutiny—recount their stories. At the center, a simple call to action: bar all forms of rape. 

In response, the government implemented new policies that aim to promote educational resources, strengthen support for survivors, and prevent perpetrators from reoffending. If implemented properly, these methods would be a step forward—especially because Japan lags behind other countries in sex education. However, the plan is still in its infancy. 

Furthermore, these policies do not address the red tape survivors face when reporting cases. Because rape surivors are expected to recreate their assault in front of law enforcement officers, many victims are discouraged from filing reports. Officers also strongly discourage survivors from pressing charges, warning that they could lose their careers and livelihoods. Even when suspects are arrested, only about half (sometimes less) face trial.

Ito, the subject of Japan’s Secret Shame, noted that the police refused to listen to her case, telling her that if she wanted to continue working she should remain silent. Ito also explained how the medical system and rape crisis centers—tools that were supposed to help her recover—forced her to travel long distances for interviews. None of these institutions tested her for date-rape substances, which would have been valuable evidence. 

Following the documentary, Ito became a symbol for survivors throughout Japan, with Time calling her one of the most influential people worldwide. After fighting for years to have her case adjudicated—even facing a counter suit from her rapist—she emerged from the courts with a sign: “victory.” She had received ¥3.3 million ($30,000) in damages. 

Yet, her rapist has not been charged; officers were planning to arrest him in 2015, but the chief investigator called it off. Because Ito’s rapist had connections to political figures, including then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, some believe that government officials shut down any potential criminal trial. Ito’s rapist is also appealing the civil court’s decision, threatening her small victory. 

All of these factors make it difficult for survivors to come forward; moreover, there are mental barriers that prevent victims from taking action. Survivors face immense guilt and shame—many worry that making a formal allegation would disrupt social harmony. Since Japanese society is more collectivist than the US, people prioritize social order over individualism, sometimes to an unhealthy or dangerous degree. 

The public typically views survivors’ allegations as disruptive. Survivors saying “me too” face backlash, including death threats. A male employee for a major Japanese advertising firm spoke anonymously to The Washington Post, remarking that “Japanese men have been enduring harassment and violence throughout history . . . If [women] want to be equals, they have to endure plenty and suffer like the rest of us.”

And they certainly are suffering—nearly a third of female workers endured workplace sexual harassment in 2016. While illegal, sexual harassment isn’t criminalized, so the law doesn’t actually prohibit wrongdoing or punish offenders. In the 1980s, a female employee known as K. suffered sexual harassment from her boss who spread rumors that she was sleeping with clients. She left the company emotionally and physically devastated but found the courage to seek civil damages. Her successful suit—known as the Fukuoka case—established that sexual harassment amounted to unconstitutional sex-based discrimination.

This case also inspired Japan to revise the Equal Employment Opportunity Law to create protocols for employers to prevent sexual harassment. But since it still lacks explicit penalties, non-compliant companies face little recourse.

Without encompassing protections, women feel as though society is rigged against them. One in ten women who complain about sexual harassment face an unsympathetic hearing or demotion. The legal system doesn’t protect women from sexual harassment, hold offenders accountable for sexual abuse, or take accusations seriously. As a result of this and other societal pressures, one in three working women between twenty and sixty-nine years old have expressed a desire to quit working. For a country experiencing a labor shortage, such findings are alarming. 

Why Japan Hasn’t Cracked the Culture

In order to change the culture around sexual abuse, the government must build on the 2017 bill. The definition of rape must include penetration by a foreign object and exclude the active resistance requirement. As sexual assault survivor and psychiatrist Miyako Shirakawa explains, victims sometimes freeze up, a “common, instinctive reaction⁠ . . .  a form of psychological self-protection.” Expecting victims to respond a certain way to sexual abuse as it’s happening ascibes blame to those who cannot.

The next step would be to protect victims in the educational system and the workplace. In the US, Title IX forbids discrimination—including sexual harrassment and assault—against students on the basis of sex and gender. As a result, schools and universities that receive federal funding must prevent and address any form of sexual misconduct. 

Before, schools and universities would view sexual harassment as trivial or boys simply being boys. While not perfect, Title IX forced educational institutions to reconsider their stance and address sexual violence more proactively. For Japan, such a policy could prove useful in preventing offenders from remaining in the educational system. It could also help victims come forward and provide them the necessary resources to address the abuse. 

Japan must impose greater liability on employers in regards to sexual harassment. US law acknowledges that the harasser and victim can be a woman or a man, and even recognizes same-sex sexual harassment. Furthermore, two 1998 US Supreme Court cases held that employers can be liable for sexual harassment. In these cases, the Court asserted that employers cannot escape liability for supervisor misconduct simply because they didn’t know about it. While these cases did not set the same standard in instances where non-supervisors were the offenders, it still increased accountability for employers.

Japanese precedent already considers sexual harassment to be discrimination. To build on this, courts should hold employers accountable for supervisors’ misconduct. After all, a 2015 survey found that supervisors were responsible for about a quarter of recorded harassment cases.

For other communities impacted by sexual abuse—LGBTQ+ people and children—increasing visibility is critical. Their stories are often hidden behind those of women. Japan lacks a nationally representative survey that allows people to self-identify their sexuality or gender. Without such indicators, the country lacks data on the scope of sexual abuse in the LGBTQ+ community.

For children, there is slightly more visibility. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, Japan’s response to child sexual abuse is among the best in the world. The report also praises the role of nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in providing resources that the government does not, namely “medical support, emergency accommodations and legal help.” 

However, this placement is a result of the country’s stable political and economic structures. Japan’s shortcomings are in its legal frameworks, namely its short statute of limitations for child abuse. The country also does not collect enough data on child sex abuse to understand its scope. The government ought to reform its laws to better protect children and extend the statute of limitations, giving victims more time to come forward. It should also collect data on child abuse to determine the extent of the problem.

If the government will not provide resources for survivors, NPOs could bridge the gap. NPOs can serve adversarial, supplemental, or complimentary roles. A more adversarial NPO would challenge the government to establish greater reforms. Yet, domestic NPOs tend to take a more supplementary approach, failing to check the government. 

Some domestic NPOs—like the Tokyo Rape Crisis Center—operate as hotlines, providing 24/7 support for victims. Others serve specific survivors; Tokyo English Life Line, for instance, is a hotline for English speakers, while Lighthouse works with survivors of human trafficking.

Lighthouse’s work, in particular, could be implemented in other NPOs that are more generally focused on sexual abuse. Lighthouse works with law enforcement, training them on how to identify and handle trafficked people. It also organizes public awareness campaigns to address misconceptions about the crime. Considering how stigmatized and misunderstood sexual abuse is, implementing such programs could help address the negative culture surrounding sex-crimes. 

That said, domestic NPOs need to take a stronger stance against government incompetence. Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog, would be a great model—the nonprofit investigates countries, releases reports, and meets with world leaders. Its annual report condemned Japan’s inadequate regulations on sexual abuse and highlighted the country’s shortcomings relative to the rest of the developed world. 

If domestic NPOs follow Human Rights Watch’s lead, they could challenge the status quo of government inaction. However, this will be a long, difficult battle. For one, the Committee for Public Interest Organizations determines a nonprofit’s tax privileges; this government committee can abuse its power to reward complementary nonprofits and punish adversarial ones. Furthermore, it can revoke a nonprofit’s legal status, dissolving the organization. With this power, the government can stifle NPOs and end this battle before it even begins. 

This is not to say that NPOs can’t walk the tightrope. Lighthouse criticized the government’s decision to pardon convicted pedophiles and petitioned against it. The organization cited Japan’s lax treatment of sex offenders, taking a clear adversarial stance against the government. As of now, it remains a legally recognized nonprofit. Ultimately, domestic NPOs must tiptoe between supplemental and adversarial roles, keeping in mind the government’s unconscionable power to disband them.

How to Start Chipping Away 

Japanese society is not prepared to adopt reforms that others suggest, especially when people are unsure whether the issue is actually a problem. Japan is a small, conservative country; thus, change takes time. Considering its criminal law bill was recently amended, it is unlikely the government will revise it again soon. It is also questionable whether the government will change its reporting measurements, meaning that vulnerable communities will remain invisible.

This does not mean change cannot occur. As illustrated by Lighthouse, NPOs can change public perception, improve governmental functions, and bridge the gaps left by government inaction. The government has illustrated some willingness to cooperate with nonprofits; since law enforcement was willing to coordinate with Lighthouse on officer trainings, perhaps these institutions could work with NPOs on sexual assault. Furthermore, watchdog institutions like Human Rights Watch could conduct their own studies on vulnerable populations in order to shed a light on hidden issues. 

The power of the We Too and Flower Demo movements are their ability to raise awareness of sexual assault. By taking to social media and marching throughout the country, these demonstrators demand that their voices be heard. Their actions catch the attention of others and their words can sway public opinion. 

As Sachiko Nakajima—a survivor of domestic violence and founder of the NPO Resilience—explains, women are starting to feel more empowered to come forward than ever before. She contends that “a tipping point will occur when numerous dots are connected to illustrate the bigger picture.” Nakajima points to the US, expressing that America experienced this tipping point after the Me Too movement connected the dots for those unaware of sexual abuse. For grassroots organizations and NPOs, the key to shifting public opinion lies in illustrating to the public what sexual abuse is and proving that it is more commonplace than statistics show. 

This is not an easy task. NPOs have less financial support than American nonprofits because the country lacks a giving culture and tax incentives for donations. And grassroots demonstrations were practically nonexistent after Me Too hit Japan. Even when protests emerged in 2018, they were smaller than those in other countries. 

Nevertheless, it is up to NPOs and grassroots movements to persevere through these hardships because they are the only forces that can challenge the status quo. While there is always some sort of backlash to sexual assault claims, The Flower Demo movement showed that societal perceptions are changing—albeit slowly. Exposing Japan’s Secret Shame will be strenuous, painful, and daunting, but for the sake of those most vulnerable to sexual assault, it is necessary.

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