Japan says #MeToo as blue chip company executive resigns for lewd remark

NH Foods president Juichi Suezawa and a junior executive from the company resigned after the latter made lewd remarks to an airline employee at the lounge in Haneda Airport (pictured). PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The #MeToo movement may have finally made its way to corporate Japan, as the president of a blue chip company resigned after a subordinate he was travelling with made sexually explicit remarks to an airline employee.

The junior executive from NH Foods Ltd., a Nikkei 225-listed company with more than 15,000 workers, resigned last month, as did President Juichi Suezawa.

Suezawa was present at an exchange between the subordinate and an airline worker at Haneda airport in October, and while he was not directly involved, local media linked his resignation to complaints over the comments.

The junior executive, who had been drinking, is said to have asked the airline employee explicit questions about her sex life at an airport lounge, according to media reports. She reported the remarks to her superior, which led to the airline filing a complaint to NH Foods.

Osaka-based NH Foods is a household name in Japan as a maker of bacon and sausages, as well as the owner of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, the baseball team where Shohei Otani and Yu Darvish rose to fame.

Suezawa's resignation in January was attributed to "personal reasons," with the background only coming to light after a local magazine report last week.

A spokesman at the company, who declined to be identified citing internal policy, said that the executive made inappropriate comments, and that Suezawa was present but didn't partake in the exchange.

The spokesman denounced the remarks, calling them "very regrettable" and "offensive" to women, though he wouldn't elaborate on the contents of the exchange.

The spokesman also wouldn't comment on the resignations beyond the Jan 29 statement, and didn't identify the junior executive or the airline.

Japan Rarity

The incident may be considered one of the very few instances of the ongoing #MeToo movement making its mark in Japan. While testimonies of sexual harassment and assault have led to the downfall of American film producer Harvey Weinstein and casino billionaire Steve Wynn, the movement appears to have left the Japanese corporate world largely unscathed.

A move by a freelance journalist last year to publicly accuse a former boss of rape was a widely reported testimony to how few victims of sexual assault or harassment come forward in the country.

"This is a rarity in Japan," Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, said. "Usually companies don't go this far to protect their employees."

However, Nakano doesn't see this as the start of something big, or think that the scale of #MeToo in Japan will reach that of the US.

"Corporate structure in Japan makes it difficult for people to reveal these incidents," he said.

While Japanese women have been guaranteed equal opportunity in the workplace for more than 30 years, their active participation outside traditional roles has only made headway recently under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Womenomics policy, his centrepiece initiative to boost productivity as the population shrinks.

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