Japan has a history of strong, groundbreaking women. In 594 AD, Empress Suiko, ruler of Japan, ordered the spread of Buddhism across the nation. Her pioneering efforts created practices still ubiquitous to this day, allowing her legendary legacy to prevail for over a thousand years. The first novel ever, The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the 11th century. Female samurai warriors known as onna-bugeisha rode into battle alongside men during Japan’s feudal period. Feminist movements have been around since at least the Meiji Era. Murasaki, legendary Empress Jingu, female author Ichiyo Higuchi (and as of 2024, Umeko Tsuda, a pioneer in women’s education), all appear on Japanese banknotes (we all know not a single woman is portrayed on U.S. currency.) The list of achievements goes on.
Meanwhile, in 2019, women in Japan are still forbidden from ascending the throne—significantly shrinking the number of possible heirs for an already depleted line. The 2018 World Economic Forum’s annual gender equality report ranked Japan 110th out of 144 countries, while in the political empowerment category, Japan ranked even lower at 125th.
What happened, Japan?
One can fairly enough argue that it’s not all that grim. Yes, strides are being made. Yet there are plenty of policies the country could drastically improve. Here we look at the good, the bad, and the ugly realities of women’s rights in contemporary Japan.
The Good: Women are speaking up and their words are affecting the law
In 2017, the Japanese penal code underwent a much-needed update. The definition of rape was expanded to include oral and anal sex in addition to vaginal, allowing more victims, including men and boys, to seek justice. Sentences were also lengthened for the offender—before there was a longer minimum sentence for theft than there was for rape.
A number of factors influenced this change, but one of the most crucial ones was the public voice. Japanese women, non-binary folks, and men are increasingly bringing national attention to issues usually not talked about. A culture of silence characterizes Japan on many fronts, yet women and their supporters are rejecting that narrative by speaking out about sexual offenses and other gender-based harassment.
"Japan’s Secret Shame," a documentary about Shiori Ito, a journalist who shocked the nation by publicly speaking out about her rape in 2017, details the current state of how Japan handles cases of sexual violence. When police refused to arrest the man she charged—Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for TBS and a man with close ties to Prime Minister Abe—despite the wealth of evidence against him, Ito held a press conference to publicly accuse Yamaguchi and unveil the case. Her unprecedented move prompted many men and women to rally against her, calling her names and even sending death threats. But her actions also sparked a dialogue about the unfair and often traumatizing treatment of rape victims in Japan.
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*If you’re in Tokyo on May 30, TELL Japan will be screening "Japan’s Secret Shame" at Aoyama Gakuin University. For more details, see here.
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