By Alisa Yamasaki, contributing writer
In the wake of sexual harassment allegations leveled at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein that emerged last month, conversations about sexual misconduct have been taking place all over the world, especially online. The hashtag #MeToo has been used by millions of victims of sexual harassment and assault to illustrate the magnitude of the issue and to create a sense of solidarity among victims.
While non-English-speaking countries have localized the hashtag in order to spread awareness about sexual assault and harassment in their own culture, the conversation hasn’t taken off in Japan just yet.
Is that surprising? Considering the fact that only 18 percent of sexual assault victims in Japan report the crime to the police, according to the Justice Ministry (some believe the figure is even smaller), and that over half of reported rape cases are not prosecuted, perhaps it’s not surprising that sexual assault isn’t something people talk about. After all, it has taken Japan 110 years to get around to revising its sex crime law, which it did this summer — lengthening potential prison sentences for offenders, broadening the definition of sexual assault and allowing men to be counted as rape victims, for example.
Despite the fact that sexual assault is all too common in Japan, the stigma of being a victim is still great enough that many women choose to stay silent and internalize their shame and guilt rather than seek help. I know girls who carried safety pins with them when they commuted to school, so that they could stab hands that groped them in the train.
“You always need to be ready to protect yourself,” one friend told me. There is truth in what she said, but I couldn’t help but sense the resignation in her voice: You need to protect yourself because no one else is looking out for you.
Speaking for myself, my earliest memory of sexual assault is being groped in a crowded train station as a child. While weaving through hundreds of people and trying hard not to lose sight of my mother walking towards the ticket gate, I felt a hand on my body. The move was swift, but even as a child I knew that this was not an accident; it was calculated. Stunned, I turned around to see the back of the man quickly disappear into a wave of people.
In the midst of my astonishment, sobering thoughts passed over me:
I’m only 8 but this happened to me. I don’t need to know what sexual urges are in order be subjected to them. Even having my mother by me didn’t stop him. There are many more people like him and they’ll continue to get away with it.
By the time the man was lost in the crowd, I thought I’d missed the opportunity to tell my mother. Should I have so many feelings over something that happened so quickly? I didn’t speak about the incident until I was an adult.
Now at 24, and having being a subject of more unwanted advances, I realize that victims of sexual harassment and assault sometimes trivialize their trauma to cope with the pain and shame. While we continue to stress that sexual misconduct is inexcusable under any circumstances, we can’t forget that these actions won’t end unless we foster an environment in which victims of sexual harassment and assault can come forward safely and confidently. To create that environment, we have to make sure we hammer home the points below.
Believe women. This summer, railway companies in the Kanto region came together to roll out a big anti-molestation campaign. Some of the earliest and biggest reactions were from men, calling the campaign biased for not focusing more on false charges of molestation.
“Laughing at these in-train announcements about the new anti-molestation campaign. Obviously what’s more important now is an anti-false charges campaign” was just one of many tweets objecting to the measure.
While there have been some cases of women falsely accusing men of groping on trains in the hopes of winning a financial settlement, these incidents are far less common than those where women actually get groped. The reactions to the anti-molestation campaign illustrate how women are often met with skepticism when they speak about their experiences of sexual assault in Japan. We need to believe women if we want more victims to come forward. Naturally, fewer molestation cases would lead to fewer false charges, too.
It’s not flattering. Perpetrators of sexual harassment often complain that victims overreact to what was meant as a compliment. In a professional environment, everyone should know that any comment that addresses a co-worker in terms of their desirability as a sex object is inherently inappropriate. No, “Your legs look great in that skirt” isn’t flattering. It makes me never want to wear that skirt to work again.
Japanese women aren’t submissive. This particular myth has stuck around for far too long. Pickup artist Julien Blanc caused a massive stir here in 2014 after he gave a seminar about Asian women and uploaded it to YouTube. In the seminar, he tells a crowd of men, “In Tokyo, if you’re a white male, you can do what you want.” He demonstrated with footage of him grabbing Japanese women on the street, kissing them and pressing his crotch against their faces.
White or not (although many white men do benefit from the internalized complexes people have here), I’ve seen many non-Japanese men use the language barrier as an excuse not to gain consent. The woman being harassed might be laughing out of nervousness or be silent from fear, or just because she doesn’t understand. None of these reactions serves as consent. Don’t take advantage of someone who doesn’t understand your language.
Say something. When I was pinned against a wall in a club because I refused to kiss a guy, no one stopped to check if I was all right. I flailed my arms and tried to make eye contact with passers-by, but people looked away quickly and walked on. Luckily I was able to get out of the situation, but if just one person had come over to check on us, I wouldn’t have had to dig my nails into the guy’s skin to free myself.
If something doesn’t look right, speak up. If an aggressor knows they are being watched, they are likely to give up. Your small actions could save someone from long-lasting pain and trauma. Let’s look out for each other.