The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the #MeToo movement is running into trouble in Japan

A performer beats a traditional drum at the beginning of the opening ceremony of the Global Summit of Women in Tokyo in May 2017. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Kaori Shoji is a journalist based in Tokyo. 

#MeToo has landed on Japanese shores. People are talking about it, but women’s rights have never been the most popular of conversation topics.

Ours is a rigidly patriarchal society, and women are rarely invited to talk about discrimination woes. The rape culture (fictional and otherwise), however, has always thrived like barnacles on an ocean liner, partly because Japanese women have taken it upon themselves to look demure and endure, endure, endure. My grandmother used to say: For a woman to survive in Japan, she must appease her menfolk in one way or another.

And to be honest, the women themselves feel there are more pressing issues than #MeToo. Many are putting off marriage until they’re sure of getting a slot in a coveted day-care center, which could be years down the line. Or perhaps they won’t be able to work for that long, since Japan (despite this being a super-aged society) has always held that younger is better when it comes to female chromosomes in the office. And if they do get married, would their partners help out with house chores — or will they, like the majority of men in this country, expect their wives to put in an average of three hours every day into maintaining the home while they spend less than 10 minutes?

The #MeToo movement gained a little traction, thanks to a number of women who have come forward to tell their stories. Some have formed support groups, such as Kaori Sato of Purple Union, a labor union founded specifically to support women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace. Incidents of sexual violence very often occur at work or in work-related situations; according to a survey, 1 in 3 Japanese women said they have been harassed. More than 60 percent of perpetrators are people whom the victims know and are in contact with everyday.

The modern Japanese workplace has become a tricky can of worms, where discrimination is best buddies with labor malpractice.

Last December, Haruka Ito, a 28-year-old former employee of ad agency giant Dentsu who blogs as Ha-chu, exposed her former boss as a sexually harassing bully, with the boss’s abusive phone texts to corroborate her story. The boss, who is no longer with the company, was shrewd enough to post a public apology on social media but added that he did some of the things “because I thought they were good for her.” As the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported, Dentsu said: “We are actively working to improve labor conditions in regards to preventing harassment within the company. Any cases of harassment acknowledged as such, will be dealt with. We would like to withhold from making public comments in regards to individual cases that have been brought to our attention from outside sources.”

On Jan. 30, Haruka Ito said in an interview with Asahi Shimbun that she felt mortified about her #MeToo experience. “At first, everyone came on board but then the movement seems to have fizzled out. If that is truly the case, it’s mortifying,” she said. She added that she wants to continue to “influence” society in the way it views sexual harassment and its victims.

While the #MeToo movement has fascinated some Japanese, it’s not as though things have improved for the better. Both women and men are reporting on social media of unease and suspicion in the workplace, plus increased segregation between the genders. Speaking to me on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, a male designer at Dentsu said that he “personally knows three men” who were severely reprimanded and temporarily demoted for making sexually harassing remarks. “I think #MeToo is doing a lot of harm to the corporate world. Men are now afraid to communicate with women colleagues and there’s a bad vibe all around. Is this what women wanted? Hell if I know. Japanese men have been enduring harassment and violence throughout history. That’s how men become men. But women, well, I guess they want special treatment. That’s unfair, isn’t it? If they want to be equals, then they have to endure plenty and suffer like the rest of us.” It’s an old and familiar argument, and it’s very effective. This is why so many young Japanese women have a secret longing to quit work, marry and become housewives. According to a lifestyle survey conducted by SonyLife, 1 in 3 working women between 20 and 69 said that they would like to quit working if possible. They also feel that society is rigged against women, and things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

In May 2017, female journalist Shiori Ito went public with allegations that she was raped by an older male journalist in a Tokyo hotel room in 2015 after being plied with alcohol. She had gone to the police, but prosecutors dropped the case following a two-month investigation, according to the New York Times. She held numerous news conferences and openly accused the alleged perpetrator (who worked at the time for TBS, a prominent national television network, and denied the allegations). She was a rare accuser who gave out her name and showed her face, prepared to meet the consequences of what such an exposure would entail. The Japanese are naturally close-mouthed about themselves and especially sensitive about names. Still, Shiori Ito said she didn’t want to be labeled “Victim A,” which is how the press usually refers to rape and assault victims. “I am not some unnamed victim,” she said. “I am a human being named Shiori Ito. I want to use my voice to display the reality of sexual violence.”

Since the Shiori Ito case, Japanese law has been changed to mete out heavier punishments toward sex crimes. Last month, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a statement reminding the public that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are eligible for compensation insurance payments. These are baby steps, but as with most things in Japan, things never change unless they change in the workplace.

Names, incidents, facts. So many things in Japan are suppressed, supposedly to protect the innocent. Last year, Shiori Ito’s book “Black Box” came out, so titled because she wrote that one of the police officers in charge of her case had said: “So who’s to say what really happened? Goings-on between a man and a woman are in a black box, impenetrable from the outside.” And so, it would seem, are a lot of other inconvenient truths.