Japan accused of failing sexual abuse survivors

In Japan, survivors of sexual assault and abuse face a culture of shame in addition to huge practical and legal hurdles if they want justice, critics say. CNN's Anna Stewart reports.

Posted: Apr 24, 2018 5:23 AM
Updated: Apr 24, 2018 5:23 AM

At first, it had seemed to Shiori Ito like a dream opportunity.

As an aspiring young reporter, she says a prominent journalist had taken an interest in her career, and invited her out to dinner.

The invitation was made while they were both in the US, but it wasn't until they had both returned to Tokyo that the meeting took place. According to Ito, they went for sushi, and at some point in the evening she went to the bathroom. It would be the last thing she remembered from the restaurant.

"The last thing I remember is being in the bathroom. I woke up with this intense pain and he was on top of me," she recounted to CNN.

"I had no memory how I got there, why, and I (had) never lost my memory like before.

"So, yeah, he was raping me."

Her alleged attacker denied the attack. He was never arrested and the case was dropped -- Ito says prosecutors cited lack of evidence, despite what she says is security camera footage of her being dragged from a taxi to the hotel, witness statements testifying to her being unconscious, and DNA from her underwear that matched her alleged attacker.

When asked about Ito's case, the prosecutors office told CNN they cannot comment on individual cases.

#MeToo takes front seat in Japan

Ito's tale is not an isolated case in the country, which is known for its conservative ideals -- a culture where privacy is largely respected and people encouraged to toe the line.

But social mores are changing, and much as the #MeToo movement has taken hold in the US, the culture of silence in Japan is also being chipped away, albeit slowly.

Most recently, two senior political figures were forced to resign for sexual misdeeds.

One -- Junichi Fukuda, administrative vice minister for the Ministry of Finance -- was accused of sexually harassing a reporter, while the other, Ryuichi Yoneyama, governor of Niigata prefecture, announced he was stepping down in the wake of accusations he paid students for sex.

In a 2016 survey conducted by the Japan Institute for Labor, almost 34.7% of staff employees experienced sexual harassment, but of that number, more than 60% "just endured it," according to the study.

TV Asahi, the reporter's employer, apologized for mishandling her initial complaint and said that it would submit an official protest against the Finance Ministry; Fukuda maintains his innocence and says he resigned to focus on clearing his name.

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Social backlash

Unlike the vast majority of sexual assault victims in the country, Ito went public with her accusation, telling the nation and the world about her alleged rape.

It's been a year now since she told a press conference how she found her voice "small" and how difficult it was "to deliver my voice to society."

Ultimately, she says, the systems Japan has to investigate the claim and prosecute it, failed her.

While women in the US and around the world found their voices and the courage to speak out about sexual harassment and rape, the #MeToo movement never took off in Japan.

Instead Ito received threats, a backlash on social media and was left fearing for her and her family's safety.

If you go by the numbers, 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 and the over 51 in 100,000 that the UK faces, according to 2014 figures from Crime and Criminal Justice, UNODC Statistics.

But the statistics likely belie the reality. Only 4% of rape victims file a report with police, according to the cabinet office of the central government, so in reality that number is likely to be much, much higher.

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Stigma of shame

The reasons that rape largely goes unreported are myriad, but in the male-dominated, conservative society, sexual assault carries a heavy stigma and women often feel shame following an attack.

Human rights lawyer Kazuko Ito -- no relation to Shiori Ito -- says it is all too commonplace. She told CNN that she recently met a teenage rape victim who, immediately after the assault, reported it to the police, and also told her boyfriend.

"But (the) boyfriend blamed her, you know? Without his consent she went out with a man and drank, and after that she was raped -- 'that's why it is your fault,' yeah, and he broke up with her.

"That's the story, it happened."

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Red tape

Not only do rape victims face a culture of shame, but also huge practical and legal hurdles if they want justice, critics say.

Under Japanese law, the prosecutor must be able to prove that the sexual assault was a result of force or violence, and the law makes no mention of consent.

Shiori Ito says the system is broken. After reporting the crime, she says she had to undergo a humiliating recreation of the scene.

"I had to lay down on the floor, there were three of four male investigators with cameras, and they placed this lifelike doll on me and moved it and took photos.

"That was the most humiliating experience that I had during the investigation."

She says it's one of the biggest reasons why rape survivors take the decision to not go to the police.

She says her ordeal continued when the medical system and rape crisis center placed onerous requirements, such as subjecting her to long travel, in her injured state, for an interview.

The police also discourage victims from reporting cases, says Ito. "They [the police] told me that I wont have the life I want to have in Japan if I do, if I want to work as a journalist in Japan I have to give up my dream. They just didn't want to take (the case)."

Tokyo Metropolitan Police told CNN that it was "not able to reveal details in communication with victims."

It was this harrowing experience that led her to go public with her claim, a decision that ultimately saw her saddled with a barrage of online hate. "There were many names [I've been called], honeytrap, prostitute, hooker."

She eventually fled Japan, her friends and family, and her dreams of working in her home country as a journalist.

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Obstacles

Even Kazuko Ito, the lawyer, says the obstacles to justice for Japanese sexual assault survivors are daunting.

"Brave women like Shiori (Ito) stand up and she exposed her face and her name [so people could] hear what happened to her, but she was not rewarded.

"She got a lot of hate speech, a lot of blame, harassment, so it is really a difficult time for her, so it is very sad but I cannot recommend women and girls to stand up, and that is why the #MeToo movement is very, very difficult."

The government says it is doing what it can to redress the injustices. The country's rape laws were changed last year for the first time in over a century, increasing the minimum sentence for rape to five years, among other upgrades -- but many people argue that it needs to increase prosecutions alongside these changes.

The government told CNN they are now creating one-stop support centers across Japan where victims of sexual violence can more easily seek help, as well as trying to raise more awareness of the issue.

But, for victims, these are just the first, small steps towards creating a society where they can feel safe and valued.

Shiori Ito says she may one day return, but for now she doesn't believe Japan is ready for a #MeToo movement.

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