Tokyo municipality mayor quits as #MeToo movement against sexual harassment picks up in Japan

TOKYO - The mayor of the western Tokyo municipality of Komae said on Wednesday (May 23) that he will resign, becoming the latest high-profile figure to fall in Japan because of sexual harassment.

Mr Kunihiko Takahashi, 66, who has been combating allegations since March, decided to quit in 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 had accused Mr Takahashi of touching her buttocks in a lift. Another said he forced her to drink from the same glass he had just used. He was also accused of grabbing the women by their waists, and of holding their hands.

The mayor's resignation came a month after top finance ministry bureaucrat Junichi Fukuda, 58, quit over allegations that he had 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, particularly in the United States. Last year, Japanese media largely buried a story involving freelance journalist Shiori Ito who spoke out against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's former biographer Noriyuki Yamaguchi for alleged sexual assault.

 
 

But the dominoes are starting to fall in what would be a sea change for the largely patriarchal society in Japan, with more women speaking out against the brazen advances made towards them 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 emerged that a subordinate he was with on a business trip had 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, who is an expert on human rights and gender issues, told a news conference on Monday (May 21). "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?'"

This form of "secondary victimisation" echoes the plight of the TV Asahi journalist, who took her allegations against Mr Fukuda to the weekly Shukan Shincho tabloid after her male superiors failed to act.

Even when the story broke, they first criticised her for her "inappropriate" response in handing over news to a third party. The ensuing backlash caused them to change their tune, saying that her actions had been justified as they "served the common good".

In Dr Taniguchi's study, 12 per cent of the cases were alleged to have been committed by police and prosecutors, 11 per cent by politicians, and 8 per cent by civil servants.

She also criticised as "quite absurd and silly" that the Cabinet had to table a decision last Friday (May 18) which declared that "under the current legal system, 'criminal sexual harassment' does not exist".

The decision explicitly stated Japan's definition of sexual harassment as "sexual comments or actions inside and outside the workplace that cause others discomfort".  It added that there was "no legal criminal punishment to dictate the penalisation of such behaviour", though actions that crossed the line into forcible indecency would constitute criminal offences.

The Cabinet move came after Finance Minister Taro Aso incurred the public's ire for standing up for the beleaguered Mr Fukuda. Fellow Minister Seiko Noda, one of two women in the 19-member Cabinet, slammed Mr Aso for his callousness and vowed to push for a debate in Parliament on legal penalties against sexual harassment.

Dr Taniguchi said the discussions served to exemplify how Japan was at a crossroads, with women increasingly more open about speaking out against their male aggressors.