Sexual harassment in Japan

#MeToo movement finally catches on

Women in patriarchal society increasingly open about speaking out against aggressors

The mayor of the western Tokyo municipality of Komae announced his resignation yesterday, becoming the latest high-profile figure to fall in Japan because of sexual harassment.

Mr Kunihiko Takahashi, 66, who has been fighting allegations since March, made the decision to quit within two weeks, a day after his own deputy told him to do so and as four of his female staff filed a formal complaint.

"It cannot be denied that there is harassment, so long as the recipient perceives an action as harassment," he told a news conference. "And so now, with courage, I'd like to honestly own up to committing harassment and apologise to the victims."

But his apology came with the caveat that there "might have been a cultural gap".

One of the women accused Mr Takahashi of touching her buttocks in a lift. Another said he made her drink from the glass he had just used. He was also accused of grabbing the women by their waists, and of holding their hands.

His resignation came a month after top Finance Ministry bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda, 58, quit over claims he made lewd comments to female reporters, including asking a TV Asahi journalist whether he could touch her breasts.

Japan has until now been slow to embrace the #MeToo movement that has swept the West. Last year, the media largely buried a story about freelance journalist Shiori Ito accusing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's former biographer Noriyuki Yamaguchi of sexual assault.

But the dominoes are starting to fall in what would be a sea change for Japan's largely patriarchal society, with more women speaking out against the brazen advances made by men in more powerful or influential positions.

In February, Mr Juichi Suezawa quit as president of the Nikkei 225-listed NH Foods after news reports that a subordinate he was with on a business trip asked an air stewardess about her sex life. The junior executive, too, resigned.

Last December, Mr Yuki Kishi, a former executive creative director at advertising giant Dentsu quit from the very agency he founded in April last year after several Dentsu employees publicly accused him of sexual harassment in an expose by Buzzfeed Japan.

Earlier this week, Osaka International University Associate Professor Mayumi Taniguchi said she had uncovered 150 instances of sexual harassment during interviews with 35 female media professionals between April 21 and 30.

"Many of the alleged harassers are in positions of authority," Dr Taniguchi, an expert on human rights and gender issues, told a news conference on Monday.

"But when women try to complain about harassment, their superiors often would tell them: 'Who do you think is more important - you or the person you are trying to report?'"

In Dr Taniguchi's study , 12 per cent of cases were alleged to have been committed by police and prosecutors, 11 per cent by politicians, and eight per cent by civil servants.

She also criticised as "quite absurd and silly" that the Cabinet had to table a decision last Friday which declared that "under the current legal system, 'criminal sexual harassment' does not exist."

But Dr Taniguchi said the discussions now showed how Japan was at a crossroads, with women increasingly open about speaking out against their male aggressors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2018, with the headline '#MeToo movement finally catches on'. Print Edition | Subscribe