Japan, statistically, is one of the safest destinations in Asia. It’s often thought of by outsiders as a somewhat secretive and unknown society with exciting destinations, bright lights, boundary-breaking outfits and amazing food. But is this the whole story?
Recently, the BBC aired a documentary about Shiori Ito, a young female journalist who alleges to have been drugged and raped by a high profile TV journalist known within both Japan and the US – Noriyuki Yamaguch. (For the sake of this post I will say ‘alleges’ once only.)
Japan’s laws on rape are some of the oldest and least updated in the Western world – until 2017 they had not been updated in 110 years. Prior to Shiori’s case, a rape conviction meant only three years in prison – whereas you would get 5 years if you were convicted of theft – and it was impossible for men to file charges of rape.
The outdated laws also mean that a victim has to prove that they ‘fought back’, and it is police protocol to ask victims to re-enact what happened to them with a life-sized doll. This requirement of re-enactment is considered to be so deeply traumatic that it is described by some as ‘the second rape’.
Crime statistics rely on people reporting incidents – but how likely is it that anyone will come forward in a society that considers silence a polite and recommended custom?
Not only do victims face grim laws, they also face an ingrained Japanese societal norm of silence around sex. This seems like an oxymoron when you consider that Japan’s comic book franchises thrive on highly questionable sexual content. The concept of men forcing themselves on women and women fighting at first before eventually submitting to men is saturated throughout the country’s comic book industry. According to the New York Times, “rape is often depicted in manga comics and pornography as an extension of sexual gratification, in a culture in which such material is often an important channel of sex education”.
Frighteningly, the reality gets worse when you look at the of the number of children and young girls who are groped repeatedly on the underground in Japan while wearing school uniform (and these are statistics based on those who came forward – I can only imagine that the actual number is higher).
After a year and a half of getting nowhere with the police, Shiori decided to go public with her case. A decision like this wouldn’t be taken lightly within the Western world, but in Japan, it is almost unheard of. To begin with, Shiori faced public backlash and even death threats. Her family were dismayed and her trauma was discussed, questioned and mocked by (often female) Japanese officials on live TV.
With all of this in mind, consider for a second how brave Shiori is. Consider how much it must have cost her personally to come forward publicly and force Japan to look at its ugly, misshapen laws and attitudes.
There are glaring areas of misconduct within this case. On first arriving at the police station, Shiori asked to talk to a female officer. Only after recounting her story did it turn out that this officer was in the traffic division and unable to file the case, meaning Shiori had to start all over again with a male officer.
Mr Yamaguchi has connections with Shinzo Abe – Japan’s Prime Minister – which put mounting political pressure onto the case, and despite it being normal protocol, the police did not arrest Mr Yamaguchi on his arrival back in Japan.
Her first court case was dismissed and so Shiori went through civil court to sue Mr Yamaguchi for damages – and again she was dismissed on ‘lack of evidence’.
Unlike many other men named throughout the #MeToo movement, Mr Yamaguchi continues to enjoy his career, power and privilege. Shioiri, on the other hand, fled Japan and now lives in London while having to cope with her personal struggle and the public opinion of her.
Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Shiori Ito continues to fight for justice, and there are glimmers of hope shining through. As a direct result of her determination not to be shamed into silence, plus the global force of #MeToo and mounting political pressure from Abe’s opposition, legislation in Japan has changed. Men can now report rape, and those convicted of rape will receive a minimum sentence of 6 years in prison.
Is this glacial change? Of course! But considering Japan’s culture when it comes to violence against women, any inch of ground gained is vital.
Finally, all I can say is – 詩織さん、応援しています! (We are with you, Shiori!)
Read more about Shiori Ito on her website. To help create more rape crisis clinics throughout Japan (clinics are vital to collecting forensic evidence, which is essential for convictions), you can make a donation here. Shiori has also written a book on her experience – Black Box – available in Japanese, French and Korean. If you’re in the UK, you can watch Japan’s Secret Shame on iPlayer now.