Japan Isn’t Ready for a #MeToo Moment

Woman holds up a #MeToo sign

The faltering of the #MeToo movement in Japan is no surprise – lacking the decades of groundwork on women’s rights and consent education that preceded #MeToo overseas, Japan remains a hostile environment for women who stand up and challenge their harassers.

While the #MeToo social movement has become a powerful force against sexual harassment and assault overseas, it has struggled to gain traction in Japan – but last month it claimed a high-profile victory when a senior figure in the Ministry of Finance, Junichi Fukuda, was forced to resign after a female journalist covering the ministry recorded him sexually harassing her1BBC News, 19 April 2018, “#MeToo hits Japan as Junichi Fukuda quits over harassment claims. The #MeToo movement was overtly referenced by those calling for his resignation, including opposition politicians who held up #MeToo signs in the Diet in protest.

Perhaps the politicians holding up those signs really did hope to inspire a wave of women to feel empowered to challenge their harassers and abusers, as happened in some other countries. A more cynical, perhaps more realistic, viewer would note that the sudden surge of political enthusiasm for #MeToo seemed far more focused on scoring a blow against embattled Finance Minister Taro Aso than in any broader question of the treatment of women.

This is not, after all, the first case of clear-cut sexual harassment or assault to emerge in Japan in the era of #MeToo; it’s just the most politically expedient. There was barely a murmur from the political establishment when Shiori Ito, who alleges being drugged and raped by TBS journalist (and confidante of Prime Minister Abe) Noriyuki Yamaguchi2Motoko Rich, New York Times, December 29 2017, “#MeToo hits Japan’s Most Famous Photographer equally failed to cause more than a ripple in political circles, while there is almost perfect silence over a spate of incidents of rape and gang-rape in elite universities that have often resulted in little more than slap-on-the-wrist punishments from the courts.

Many people want to see harassers publicly pilloried, sending a strong message to would-be abusers

Fukuda’s resignation, then, may be another false start for #MeToo in Japan; another chapter in the slow and stumbling progress of the movement here. This is by no means an indication that Japan doesn’t have a problem with sexual harassment or assault – or that Japanese women are not angry and fed up with receiving inappropriate sexual comments in their workplaces, being groped on crowded trains or fearing sexual assault from university upperclassmen or office bosses. Countless women (and many men) would love nothing more than to see those who have made their lives a fearful misery being publicly pilloried, and a strong message being sent to other would-be abusers and silently suffering victims in the process.

The problem is that the #MeToo movement, and its strategy of outing sexual harassers by having their victims come forward in public, arose in a very specific cultural context – a context very different from that of Japan in 2018. The multiple allegations made against powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein, and the bravery of the women who came forward to make them, were the spark that set off the movement – but the ground had been prepared and the kindling laid by decades of slow, painstaking progress on issues of harassment, power, and women’s rights. #MeToo worked because society in parts of the United States had reached a point where sexual harassment and abuse had become something shameful and grotesque for the abuser, not for the victim. It was fuelled by the outrage and courage of women, but also relied on the genuine, if unquestionably naïve, anger of a generation of men who had been raised to believe that women being propositioned or groped in the workplace, or trapped in a hotel room and forced to watch their decades-older boss masturbating, was the stuff of 1950s and 60s period dramas – and were appalled to find out how many women still face these things in the 2010s. The whole movement hinges on a large swathe of society reacting to these stories with instant condemnation for the abuser, rather than instant blame for the victim.

That is not the social environment that exists in Japan in 2018. Women who come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault are routinely disbelieved, blamed for the incident, or told that they should accept it as normal. Shiori Ito saw police investigators suddenly drop the case against her well-connected alleged rapist; the unnamed female reporter in the Fukuda case was accused first of forging the recording, then of being the real villain of the case for making the recording and exposing Fukuda’s behaviour. Online smear campaigns targeted both women. Even in less high-profile cases, the consequences for a victim who comes forward can be severe. Almost every young woman in large urban areas experiences being molested on a train at some point3Annette Ekin, Al Jazeera, 8 Mar 2017, “The Myth of Japan’s Bored Police. The Ministry of Justice estimates that only one in five rapes are reported to the police; some NGO estimates suggest it’s more like one in twenty.

The groundwork of educating men and women about consent remains a half-finished project in Japan

This is not an environment in which a movement like #MeToo can thrive. Although presented as a movement of solidarity, it’s a firmly individualist at its core – encouraging abused women (and men) to stand up in public and challenge their accusers. It’s the end-point of a struggle that has spent decades preparing the business and political worlds, the media, social systems and people’s expectations and perceptions to be receptive to its message. #MeToo stands on the shoulders of years of tireless work to educate men and women about consent and bodily autonomy, about power and privilege and mutual respect. That groundwork remains a half-finished project in Japan; Japanese women’s fears that standing up as part of #MeToo is just going to damage their lives and careers remain, for now, largely justified.

It’s not that Japan doesn’t have an active and even successful feminist movement; the position of women in Japanese society has changed greatly in recent decades, and for all the (often wholly deserved) criticisms of Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” policies, the lot of women in the Japanese workforce has been gradually improving for some time. Gender relations in Japan are still reeling from the economic shock of the disappearance of many of the well-paid, stable jobs that allowed single-income families to be the norm during most of the post-war era; a whole generation of men and women are still struggling to adjust their expectations to this new reality and their resulting new positions in society. Change is happening, even if the work still to be done remains daunting. Women are working in larger numbers, cracks are appearing in the glass ceiling at many companies, and seemingly inconsequential ideas like the attractiveness and desirability of ikumen– men who actively participate in child-raising work – are quietly working a slow revolution in gender roles in the home. The life of a young woman in Japan today will be very different from that of her mother, in ways that are mostly for the better.

Change in Japan is more gradual than we might hope – but fast enough to make many uncomfortable

The problem for #MeToo is that for all the progress made in these ways, questions of harassment or sexual assault run into some fundamental sets of taboos – and a serious generation gap. The greying generations who occupy the upper echelons of Japan’s politics and public institutions hail from an era where women in the workplace were treated as little more than ornamental; they were there to look attractive until they found a husband, at which point they’d quit their job to raise a family. Many older men, especially among the elite, see both verbal and physical sexual harassment as being part and parcel of that environment; they find willing support for this outdated view among the ranks of creepy men who so often find themselves conveniently unable to pinpoint the line between flirting and sexual harassment or assault. Rape, meanwhile, remains a shameful taboo, and even many younger men hold antiquated and dangerous notions about consent – often including a sense that drunk or even unconscious women are “fair game”. For individual women to stand up and say “me too” in this environment is like Canute trying to hold back the sea; #MeToo is a movement that works only when the tide itself has turned.

The failure of #MeToo to take off in Japan shouldn’t be taken as a sign that all is lost in terms of progress towards gender equality and ending harassment culture in Japan. The country’s starting point is different and the tactics which work here may not be those that have been effective in the United States and elsewhere – but the direction of travel remains the same. Change is happening in Japan, more gradual than most might hope, but still clearly fast enough to make many people uncomfortable. Bassist Tatsuya Yamaguchi of popular idol group Tokio, for example, was forced to resign from powerful talent agency Johnny & Associates4Asahi Shimbun, May 7 2018, “Tokio bassist on his own after talent agency lets him leave following allegations that he “forcibly kissed” an underage girl – a far tougher outcome than many had expected, and likely related to the turn in public opinion around these issues. Aso himself may have inadvertently become a rallying point for the anti-harassment movement, with the loquacious Finance Minister shooting his mouth off5Kyodo News (via Japan Times), 8 May 2018, “Taro Aso repeats comment on alleged sexual harassment that sparked nationwide protest one day earlier6James Mayger & Toru Fujioka, Bloomberg, 20 April 2018, “Japanese Official says Font Size on Sexual Harassment Complaint was Too Small in defence of Fukuda’s behaviour and his handling of the situation, thus helpfully putting his own face on exactly the kind of dismissive, sexist behaviour from powerful older men that Japanese women have come to find so utterly infuriating7Kyodo News (via Bangkok Post),  7 May 2018, “Protestors bash Aso over harassment comments. The #MeToo movement’s brief moment in the sun in Japan will likely be remembered more for cynical political opportunism than for any genuine contribution to ending harassment and improving the position of women – but the change in Japan’s gender relations will continue to progress regardless of any imported hashtag movement.

Assistant Professor at Waseda University | Website | + posts

Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour,  domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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