Two of the simplest words in the English language are changing the world – or at least starting to. The words are “me too.” The global movement that goes by that name was spawned last October by allegations of sexual abuse against American film producer Harvey Weinstein. Suddenly women began tweeting “me too!” Decades, generations of shame, secrecy, a gnawing feeling, reinforced by society, that the fault lay with the victim and not with the perpetrator, seemed to have been blown away. Women came forward boldly, in droves. The male-dominated establishment went on the defensive. Impunity was a thing of the past.
Japan also has its “me too” movement. One of its sparks has been a book, published late last year, titled “Black Box,” by journalist Shiori Ito. The author herself is the subject – she was raped, she claims, in a Washington hotel room two years ago by former Tokyo Broadcasting Service (TBS) Washington Bureau chief Noriyuki Yamaguchi. The trial is ongoing. The online abuse Ito was subject to – she “should have been strangled,” was one comment – suggests what a woman is up against in Japan. But a chorus of “me too!” followed. Sexual abuse is showing itself to be not something that happens to a few unlucky individuals. It’s pervasive.
Josei Jishin (Feb 27) celebrates Japan’s “me too!” coming-out. It’s long overdue, it says – and yet, even now that it’s here, change will be slow. It’s a hierarchical country, and men, 20 years after Japan’s first belated law addressing the issue, still dominate the hierarchy, much more than they do in other countries. The World Economic Forum in 2016 ranked Japan 111th in terms gender equality among 140 countries.
Your boss comes up to you at work: “Hey honey, you seem out of sorts lately, your husband not giving you enough lovin’? I’ll be happy to fill in, you know.” The scene is imaginary but only too typical, Josei Jishin says, of the Japanese workplace. How should a woman respond? It’s a thin line she must walk. If she’s too brusque, her career can suffer; not brusque enough, she’ll seem encouraging.
Osaka University sociologist Kazue Muta traces the roots of the me too movement back to 1989. A Fukuoka court case that year introduced a new word that ever since has been part of everyday discourse: sekuhara (sexual harassment). The case involved a woman suing her employer over sexually explicit verbal abuse she suffered when she demanded equal pay for equal work. She won the case and was awarded damages. Sekuhara was 1989’s “word of the year.” Still, Muta says, it changed little.
Not until 1998 did the Diet pass a law requiring employers to take measures against sekuhara – 33 years after the first U.S. equivalent. But ingrained ideas die hard. Power and authority taken for granted by Japanese men seem to give them license, and women have ample reason to keep their resentment to themselves. Their vulnerability in the workplace is one, says Muta. Another, writes journalist Ito in her contribution to Josei Jishin’s package, is the relative scarcity of professional counselors and police officers trained to deal with victims of sexual abuse. Few police officers are female, and insensitive questioning by male officers can amount to a “second rape,” she says. These are some of the issues Japan has lagged far behind other developed countries in addressing.
Will “me too” spur change? It already has. It has emboldened women and given men notice that they face exposure on social media, if not elsewhere. But the male-dominated hierarchy remains a fact of life. Until women occupy more top posts, says Muta – in politics, business and the media – new thinking is likely to go only so far.© Japan Today