The governor of Japan's Osaka region was ordered today to pay $107,000 to a 21-year-old university student in the country's largest-ever sexual harassment verdict, a ruling described by legal experts as revolutionary and one that is likely to lead to more such court cases.
A growing number of lawsuits have been filed here since a revised labor law prohibiting sexual harassment and sex discrimination went into effect in April. In July, a court awarded $87,000 to a woman who said she was harassed and forced into a sexual relationship by a piano teacher while she was a university student.
Osaka governor Knock Yokoyama denied the student's allegation that he had groped her for a half-hour in April--just a week after the new law took effect--aboard a campaign bus during his run for reelection as chief executive of the region that includes Japan's second-largest city.
Yokoyama has called the allegation a "downright lie," but the student argued she was slandered and raised her initial demand for damages of $117,000 to $146,000. Osaka District Court Judge Keisuke Hayashi determined Yokoyama had tried to silence the student by offering her a gift, made a false statement about her to prosecutors and defamed her publicly. "His acts were obstinate, wicked and possibly premeditated," the judge said.
Yokoyama, 67, refused to appear in court to contest the allegations, saying he was too busy with official duties. "I am aware that many people still question my response to this case," he said in a statement today. "By putting my utmost effort into dealing with Osaka's various tasks, I would like to regain your confidence."
Sexual harassment has been recognized as a problem in workplaces and at schools and universities here for many years. In a survey of female civil servants last year, more than 90 percent said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, and one in six reported demands for sexual favors from a supervisor or colleague. The word seku-hara (sexual harassment) was named the most prominent new word of the year here in 1989.
A 1998 legal decision in the United States is widely seen as a turning point in Japanese attitudes on the issue. In that case, a court awarded $34 million to a group of women who filed a sexual harassment suit against their employer, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. in Normal, Ill.
The award shocked Japanese companies into recognizing the implications of not educating their employees on acceptable treatment of women, according to Yoshiko Takahashi, a language professor at Keio University and a women's rights activist. "That case had a really big impact on Japanese companies," she said. "The atmosphere then was that no American or European company would collaborate with you if you didn't have sexual harassment prevention measures because the foreign firms were scared of big lawsuits."
The Mitsubishi case and a recognition that a slowing birth rate here meant more women would be needed in the labor force were key factors in bringing about the labor law revision. "Sexual harassment has existed from way back, but because there was no law against it . . . society's recognition was low; victims had to just keep their mouths shut and cry," said Hideo Yamada, a lawyer who has written several books on the issue, including "Sexual Harassment Lessons for the Company Man."
Yamada, who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said the number has been rising steadily this year. Even so, he called the damage award in the Yokoyama case a "revolutionary decision."
Takahashi, who has formed the Harassment Prevention Committee at Keio University, said Japan's "social atmosphere has changed radically" in recent years. "After plans to revise the labor law were announced last year, many companies and universities started setting up sections to prevent or to judge sexual harassment," she said.
Political leaders are responding as well. The Tokyo metropolitan government has announced plans to establish a special fund in its next budget to lend money to plaintiffs in cases of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
The allegations against Yokoyama--whose formal name is Isamu Yamada--received wide publicity partly because he is a prominent and colorful politician, a onetime comedian who adopted the name he used in a stage duo called Knock-Out. (His partner was called Out). Moreover, he both denied the allegations and refused to challenge them in court.
Yokoyama, a political independent who is serving his second term as Osaka governor, told reporters he has no intention of resigning despite calls for him to do so from a variety of civic groups.
After the ruling, the young plaintiff declared in a statement: "My aim was not to win the suit. The wrongdoer in a sexual harassment case should always apologize for his actions. If [Yokoyama] is unwilling to do so, he should resign."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.