As the #MeToo movement raged in neighboring South Korea, it’s been comparatively subdued in Japan. Until today that is, when two government officials resigned in rapid succession after becoming engulfed in allegations of sexual harassment, breathing new life into the movement.
A magazine last week published a story accusing Junichi Fukuda, the finance ministry’s top bureaucrat, of making sexual advances against multiple female reporters. A video posted by the magazine purportedly featured Fukuda asking a female reporter questions such as “Can I touch your breasts?” On Monday (April 16), he threatened to sue the magazine, while the finance ministry said that it would investigate the allegations against him through an external law firm, and asked female journalists (pdf, link in Japanese) with information to come forward. Finance minister Taro Aso today announced (link in Japanese) Fukuda’s resignation.
Fukuda denies the allegations against him, and maintains his resignation is unrelated, intended to spare the ministry.
The other official, Ryuichi Yoneyama, the governor of Niigata prefecture, Yoneyama announced his resignation (link in Japanese) in anticipation of a magazine’s plan to publish on Thursday (April 19) accounts of his affairs with multiple women, including ones that involved payment. Yoneyama has admitted to paying at least one woman for sex, and in his resignation announcement (link in Japanese) apologized for “betraying the trust” of people in his prefecture.
The resignations mark a surprising turn for the #MeToo movement in Japan, which hitherto had few women willing to publicly come forward with their stories of sexual assault. The most prominent of those who did was Shiori Ito, a 28-year-old journalist who last year accused a well-known senior TV journalist of raping her in his hotel room in 2015 while she was unconscious. Following a police investigation—in which Ito was made to reenact the ordeal using a sex doll—prosecutors dropped the charges. Ito recounted her experiences in a book published in October called Black Box, and filed a civil lawsuit against the TV journalist, Noriyuki Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi denied the allegations.
In a statement (link in Japanese) released earlier today before Fukuda’s resignation was announced, the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers Unions criticized the government’s lack of action on the allegations made against Fukuda, particularly on the part of finance minister Taro Aso. The federation noted that many young women just starting out in journalism in Japan silently suffer sexual harassment, and often have to “silently move a man’s a hand on her waist or shoulder to his knee” out of fear that they might damage relations with sources.
In recent days, #MeToo has also started to hit Japan’s cultural sphere, after model KaoRi came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, whose work is being displayed at a retrospective at the New York Museum of Sex. BuzzFeed Japan said (link in Japanese) that Araki did not respond to multiple requests for comment; KaoRi said in a blog post (link in Japanese) that the artist wrote to her to refute her allegations, and said he wouldn’t work with her again.
Various explanations have been cited to explain the slow progression of #MeToo in Japan, such as the onerous experience that women who report assault or rape are expected to endure (paywall), and stark inequality in gender relations, with Japan frequently ranking near the lowest on that metric among developed countries. Kazue Muta, a professor of gender studies at Osaka University, told the Mainichi newspaper that ”Japanese women are taught from a young age to follow the will of others” and are hesitant to speak up, while victim shaming is also common.
Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama noted in a tweet before Fukuda’s resignation was announced that following the awarding of Pulitzer prizes to reporters who uncovered sexual harassment scandals in the US that Japan, in contrast, remains a “second-rate country” when it comes to human rights.
The slow development of #MeToo in Japan is particularly striking when contrasted with Korea. Despite also being a society where discrimination against women is deeply rooted, accusations by Korean women of sexual harassment have brought down a former presidential hopeful, a Seoul mayoral hopeful, and the country’s top poet. President Moon Jae-in has also pledged his support for the #MeToo movement.
Despite his stated commitment to empowering women in the workplace through his “Womenomics” program, prime minister Shinzo Abe has made no such public commitment to #MeToo. As Abe—currently meeting with US president Donald Trump in Florida—finds himself bogged down in scandal with plunging approval ratings, he might consider recasting his views on sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Japan.