#MeToo Japan: What happened when women broke their silence

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In this picture taken on January 30, 2018 Japanese journalist Shiori Ito, who accused a television newsman of raping her in 2015, poses for a picture in TokyoImage copyright
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Shiori Ito accused a high-profile journalist of raping her in 2015

In the space of a fortnight in Japan, a model accused a renowned photographer of exploitation and two top officials resigned over sex scandals. This has re-ignited the #MeToo debate in a country which has been reluctant to acknowledge it as a hard reality for women, as the BBC’s Sakiko Shiraishi reports.

In Japan, where the spectre of public censure looms large, it is unsurprising that women are often discouraged from speaking out. A US state department human rights report notes that sexual harassment in the workplace remains “widespread”.

But in the space of just a few weeks a spate of allegations has led to public figures being shamed, top officials resigning and also a backlash against the women behind the claims.

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Junichi Fukuda has resigned but denies all allegations against him

By far the biggest scalp claimed was that of Junichi Fukuda, the top bureaucrat in Japan’s finance ministry who is accused of sexually harassing a female journalist by making suggestive comments to her. Mr Fukuda resigned last week but denies the allegations and has said he will sue the magazine that made the revelations for defamation.

Following his resignation, TV Asahi said one of its reporters had been the victim of harassment by Mr Fukuda and said it would lodge a protest with the finance ministry.

Suffering in silence

But perhaps most interesting is how all the institutions involved responded.

The finance ministry called on female reporters to step forward to co-operate with fact-finding, a gesture widely criticised, including by Seiko Noda, Japan’s minister in charge of female empowerment, as tantamount to pressuring victims to stand up in front of those who allegedly harassed them.

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Seiko Noda, the minister for women’s empowerment, has criticised the ministry’s request

Most telling is how the female reporter’s own employer responded to her allegations. Hiroshi Shinozuka, the head of TV Asahi’s network news division, explained she had taken her story to the magazine after being advised against reporting it.

“We are doing some deep soul-searching as regards our inability to respond appropriately despite receiving information that one of our employees had been sexually harassed,” said Mr Shinozuka, who said the main concern was her emotional state.

Before Mr Fukuda’s resignation, Japan’s Newspaper Workers’ Union issued a blistering statement.

“Female reporters have had to suffer silently, despite being subjected to humiliating and mortifying treatment… When a reporter accuses an interviewee of sexual harassment, the media company must respond immediately and adamantly to protect the human rights of the reporter as well as protect the safety of their working environment.”

But the reporter has also seen a significant backlash on social media, from politicians and even celebrities. Many chose to critique the reporter for handing in the recorded interview to the magazine. Hirofumi Shimomura, a former culture minister, said he considered that “a crime in a sense” but later apologised for that comment.

Then an influential comedian, Hitoshi Matsumoto, queried why TV Asahi had allowed a female reporter to continue covering Mr Fukuda if they knew he was sexually harassing her.

“If they made her go against her will, isn’t that power harassment? And if she kept going for a year because she was keen on it, then wasn’t it a honey trap?”

The photographer and a muse

The reporter’s allegations came shortly after another model, known as KaoRi, dropped a bombshell on Japan’s world of photography.

She posted a blog about her time with Nobuyoshi Araki, one of Japan’s most celebrated erotic photographers, in which she accused him of both financial and artistic exploitation, having her pose nude in front of other people, and questioned how images of her had been used. She does not accuse him of any sexual misconduct.

Mr Araki, best known for exploring the boundary between pornography and art, is not new to controversy, having been accused of creating images that demeaned women and essentially of creating sexist art, a charge that he dismisses as a simplistic interpretation of his work.

His photography certainly embraces nudity but also depicts explicit scenes of bondage, typically showing women bound and suspended in the air. KaoRi became known as his “muse” and features in many of his photos tied up or nude.

She stopped working with him in 2016 but said that the MeToo movement had encouraged her to share her experience.

KaoRi said she worked without a contract, was forced to take part in explicit shoots in front of strangers, was not regularly paid and that her nude images were often used without her consent.

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Mr Araki, pictured here at a reception in Tokyo in 2008, is no stranger to controversy

She claims that when she objected to the use of her image for commercial gain, she was shut down and that the entire experience led to considerable trauma and ill health.

Although she did not accuse him of sexual misconduct, the allegations have raised questions once again about the relationship between an artist and so-called “muse” and the idea that art may have an impact on questions of consent.

KaoRi has told the BBC that in a telephone conversation with her, Mr Araki has denied all of her allegations.

The vast majority of Mr Araki’s models appear to have been more than happy to take part in the shoots, but one model did share a Facebook post which accused Mr Araki of behaving inappropriately during a photo shoot, an experience which she told the BBC made her panic.

She said that during one uncomfortable incident, witnesses, including editors from a publisher, were there but no one thought to intervene.

Despite her strong distrust of Japan’s art and publishing industry, she found some support after posting about her experiences on Facebook.

The photographer has not commented publicly on any of the allegations nor has he responded to further requests for comment from the BBC.

‘Taught not to say no’

But neither of the women have received much coverage or public support with their claims.

Kazuko Ito, a lawyer vocal about the MeToo movement in Japan, said Japan’s law against sexual exploitation is way behind other developed countries. Sex crime laws were amended last June after 110 years but for her the problem runs much deeper.

“Lack of legal protection, combined with cultural pressure to accept and bear one’s hardship, make young women vulnerable.

“Japanese people are taught not to say NO,” she added, saying that it is almost as if people are hardwired not to refuse unfair demands.

“What they need is solidarity across industries and societies. That will encourage more people to speak up.”

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The MeToo movement has been slow to pick up in Japan, unlike in Korea where it has rapidly gained movement

She also represents one woman who did come forward with her story of sexual assault, one that elicited a notably ambiguous response.

In a case notable for its rarity, Shiori Ito accused a high profile journalist of drugging and raping her. After a police investigation was dropped, she took the unusual step of going public with her allegations – and has opened a civil lawsuit against the man.

But for her too, initially, there was a deafening silence in response to her allegations, from both women and men, when she first voiced them.

One high-profile actress was notable for speaking out on behalf of KaoRi, lauding her courage. Kiko Mizuhara wrote on Instagram: “My heart ached with thinking how much pain KaoRi has endured for such a long time. I appreciate her courage to share this story.

“Models are not things. Women are not sex tools. We are all human. We should never forget sympathising each other.”

Additional reporting by the BBC’s Yuko Kato in Tokyo.

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