Japan’s Gender Inequality: Unearthing Harassment Culture in Japan

Japanese Victims: Silent or Silenced?

Japan is well-known for its technological innovation, modern cities, and gorgeous cultural vistas. It has a higher number of women in the workforce and is by most accounts a highly advanced country – and yet, harassment of women remains the elephant in the room no one talks about. Why? 

The #MeToo movement was a global approach to shed light on the gross misconduct many victims had experienced but were never able to talk about. Despite its worldwide popularity, #MeToo fell short in Japan, where many victims felt speaking up was more of a danger. Harassment in Japan, both public and private, is so common that many expect it, bear it, and continue in their lives without thinking to share it (Caputo, 2018). 


“I thought that if I just kept everything to myself, it would go away.” – Victim who did not report to the police, via Mika Kobayashi .


Japan’s crime statistics are relatively good; compared to the U.S., Japan has just one-quarter the crime level. A crime like rape, which could be escalated from harassment, has a 27-time higher rate in the U.S. However, fear of crime is two times higher than in the U.S (Japan vs United States Crime Stats Compared, n.d.).   

The statistics only reflect what is reported, and it’s an open secret in Japan that almost no one wants to report their harassers, much less their abusers. Only around 4% of rape victims will report it to the authorities – we can only speculate the abysmal percentage of reports submitted by victims of harassment. The above graphic gives insight into the possible statistics of rate of harassment, if incidents were reported by most victims. The graphic also assumes that 10% of victims of rape and assault in Japan not only reported their experiences, but that their report was then properly documented by the authorities (Yuko, n.d.). 


“After being raped or sexually assaulted, women who go report it to the police are estimated at less than 5%.” – Hiromi Nakano, Head of Shiawasc Namida 


Even more concerning is the attitude of the police towards those who do come forward and try to receive justice, as victims are belittled, asked what they were wearing, and asked why they were near their attacker. Disturbingly, some victims have even been told they must recreate their assault using props, while officers photograph the scene for “evidence” (OSAGI – OFPW Harassment Policy Including Sexual Harassment, n.d.). 

One has to ask what is defined as harassment? Harassment is defined as “any improper and unwelcome conduct that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another person” by the United Nations in 2008. In Japan several distinct types of harassment are commonly known (Cox, 2015). 

Pawahara (Power Harassment): any abuse a person in a lower position receives from their superior 

“Then, he would ask what kind of sex I like. He asked me those questions daily,” – ‘Hana’, an anonymous victim of workplace harassment 

Sekuhara (Sexual Harassment): unwanted sexual behaviour; even that which does not involve physical contact, such as lewd unwanted statements

Aruhara (Alcohol Harassment): abuse involving forced or pressured consumption of alcohol, to incapacitate the victim 

“I was overjoyed at the prospect of another baby, yet such an upsetting situation severely tempered that happiness.’’ – Naomi Sekiguchi on being dismissed for her pregnancy 

Matahara (Maternity Harassment): the harassment of pregnant women, often resulting in demotion, firing, or unfair treatment at work (Schmidt, 2021).

The Shiori Ito case and its consequences on Japanese society is often brought up as an example of the terrible response to harassment and rape. Freelance journalist and filmmaker Shiori Ito is a Japanese rape victim who came forward trying to get justice, she has revolutionized Japan’s sexual violence awareness. 

As visible in the provided timeline Shiori Ito has been fighting for over two years after her sexual assault happened.  

In 2013 then 25-year-old Shiori Ito was studying journalism in New York when she met famous journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi in a bar. Back then he had told her to feel free to contact him for work inquiries.  

After making contact again about an internship position and a possible producer job, the two met in Tokyo at a sushi restaurant. Over drinks, Ito experienced dizziness and memory loss, ultimately waking up in Yamaguchi’s hotel room bed – her last memory having been to leave the table for the restroom. Eyewitness testimony fills in the gaps; Ito was put in a taxi with Yamaguchi and taken to the hotel against her will. There, Ito was raped and assaulted several times throughout the night. 

Ito called a crisis rape centre but was told that she had to personally come in, which due to her mental state at the time was not possible for her. Five days later she reported the crime the police, she had to explicitly retell the events that had happened and show it with a life-sized doll; during this she experienced what is referred to as “second rape”, a term used to describe reliving sexual assault traumas and thus causing post- traumatic stress symptoms.  

The police began to investigate the case and used the evidence provided by the hotel security footage, witnesses and DNA on Ito’s clothes, soon enough they received a warrant to Yamaguchi, this however was prevented by a senior police officer.  

Following the traction of the rape allegations Yamaguchi denied everything on a TV chat show. He claims that Ito was very drunk and made the story up. He stated that Ito vomited several times, partially undressed herself and then fell asleep. After waking up she apologised for being so drunk; during the sex they then had she was an active and non-resistant participant. 

In August 2016 Ito’s case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Japan’s National Police Agency insist that there was no misconduct on Ito’s case. 

In May 2017 Ito took her rape case to the public; she spoke at a press conference. She deemed this as her last resort to achieve justice. Her family was not supportive of Ito taking her private matters to the public, however it resulted in two very prominent responses: A positive response by victims and empathizers, realizing that it is possible to come forward and praising her for her braveness and a negative response with a more old-fashioned outlook, blaming Ito for the defamation of Yamaguchi with regards to the century old rape laws and disregarding the meaning of consent.  

Four months later her appeal to reopen the case was rejected, Yamaguchi remained innocent. 

Ito decided to file a civil case, which could result in damage charges for Yamaguchi. He kept defending his innocence and denying all accusations (Zenebe, 2021). 

After over two year of fighting Ito wins the case in December of 2017. This win has sparked the #MeToo movement in Japan.   

 During this month Ito has become a campaigner on the issues of sexual assault and spoke at a University in Tokyo about consent and how the Japanese education system fails to talk about this topic.   

Japanese erotica has normalized the trope of women resisting but secretly liking it, influencing many women’s decisions not to speak out. In October 2017 with the #MeToo movement on the rise, Japanese sexual assault survivors started to reach out to her with their own stories, many of whom did not report for fear of “second rape” (SBS Dateline, 2019). 

“A drop of water on its own is nothing, but many drops together can create a tsunami” – Anonymous victim via Shiori Ito 

Harassment in the workplace is a huge issue when one-third of all workers have experienced it or deal with it daily, and it doesn’t stop there. The behaviour can escalate to actual coercion of acts unrelated to their employment, demotions or firings from the job, and physiological symptoms in the victim from the stress.  

Maternity harassment of pregnant women in the workplace is a particularly concerning issue. In an interview with Tokyo Weekender, Sayaka Osakabe tells all about how her place of work demeaned her for choosing to have another child and was refused her request to stop working overtime, a right covered by the Labor Standards Act, to prevent a miscarriage. She was told she was causing trouble for the company and to quit. As a result of the stress, Osakabe miscarried a second time. She then quit her job and chose to raise awareness on maternity harassment by creating Matahara Net in 2014 (Hernon, 2018). 

Even acknowledging that you have faced harassment can lead to danger, in a situation without a professional, legal, or social system to support you. Kaori Sato is one such victim who decided to go public with her story, despite the inevitable backlash.  

Kaori Sato was driven to the brink of suicide after two and a half years of harassment from her boss. Despite the clear criminal action, her company refused to help her. There was nowhere she could turn to cover her medical expenses and salary if she lost her job, so she was forced to stay on. Sato decided to sue and won against the Japanese government for their negligence. She was then awarded worker’s compensation (Caputo, 2018) 

In recent years, there has been a much larger effort by the Japanese government to not just recognize but penalize harassment in the workplace. Prime Minister Abe’s “womenomics”, put a direct spotlight on the mistreatment and lack of representation of women in Japan’s workforce in 2013 and 2014.  

In 2019, The Comprehensive Labor Policy Promotion Act (CLPPA) was entered into force, with the purpose of eliminating workplace harassment, commonly defined as power harassment, as well as sexual harassment related to women, and especially women who go through pregnancy and childbirth. 

While this law points the country in the right direction, it ultimately falls short – as companies are not penalized if they are found to not be complying with the new protocols. The harshest action they might face is having their company name publicly disclosed for failure to comply (Pitchford, 2020) 

In 2017 first ever national fund for the support of sexual crime victims has been established, the government has committed the equivalent of about 1.5 million US Dollars. 

After a lot of critique Japan has changed its rape laws for the first time in a century; to include oral sex. The sentences have also been increased (SBS Dateline, 2019). 

Clearly, there needs to be a harsher and clearer nation-wide policy in place, one which protects not only those who are being harassed in the workplace, but in public and at home, as many victims are harassed by their relatives (Mainichi Japan, 2020) 

Baseline, everyone deserves basic respect, and it can be widely agreed that discrimination based on gender or stereotypes violates that right. Why, then, isn’t the harassment being talked about in Japanese public? 

Realistically, what incentive is there to acknowledge the issue, much less address it with definable and legal action? Some might argue that harassment is an accepted norm in Japan; a result of long held beliefs in gender roles that result in a power imbalance between men and women. From a realist’s perspective one could argue that with more equal and just treatment, women would be empowered and feel more confident and safer, resulting in improved quality of life and an elevated economic position for the country overall.  

Through a liberalistic lens unfortunately, there is only so much progress that international law, criticism, and perspective can facilitate in eradicating gender inequality. Improving the safety and happiness of the nation is a good motivator, but international law might be more effective when driven by increased economic status.  

“I am all right with men having power over women,” -’Hana’, an anonymous victim explaining that men are more objective due to lack of menstruation or possible pregnancy 

It could also be said that regardless of the larger institutions at play, everyone who experiences harassment deserves a system in place that will support them – including those whose views are more traditional. Considering the uniqueness of each individual case would result in a more considerate and flexible approach – one that other countries could potentially model.  

Written by Allison A. Moore and Maria Luttman Moya

Caputo, I. (2018). The dangers of saying #MeToo in Japan. The World. https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-11-08/japan-sexual-harassment-isn-t-crime-women-who-say-metoo-are-targets

Cox, P. (2015). “Matahara” refers to the all-too-common practice of demoting or reassigning women at work after they become pregnant in Japan. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-09-09/maternity-harassment-so-common-japanese-workplace-they-invented-word-it

Hernon, M. (2018). Fired for Having a Baby: Victims of Maternity Harassment in Japan Speak Out | Tokyo Weekender. Tokyo Weekender. https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2018/09/fired-for-having-a-baby-victims-of-maternity-harassment-in-japan-speak-out/

Japan vs United States Crime Stats Compared. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Japan/United-States/Crime

Mainichi Japan. (2020). Many sexual violence victims in Japan do not report assaults to police, support groups: survey – The Mainichi. The Mainichi . https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20201123/p2a/00m/0na/024000c

OSAGI – OFPW Harassment Policy including sexual harassment. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osaginew/fpsexualharassment.htm

Pitchford, S. (2020). New Anti-Harassment Law Introduced in Japan — Human Rights Pulse. Human Rights Pulse. https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/new-anti-harassment-law-introduced-in-japan

SBS Dateline. (2019). The woman who broke the silence on rape in Japan – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MncTvUkJ0-s

Schmidt, B. (2021). 7 Types of Harassment in Japan – Savvy Tokyo. https://savvytokyo.com/7-types-of-harassment-in-japan/

Yuko, A. (n.d.). Lifting the lid on Japan’s harassment problem | NHK WORLD-JAPAN News. NHK World Japan. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/backstories/361/

Zenebe, B. (2021). Cracking Japan’s Systemic Sexual Abuse Culture. Northeastern University Political Review. https://www.nupoliticalreview.com/2021/01/31/cracking-japans-systemic-sexual-abuse-culture/



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