Opinion: Shiori Ito's rape case victory provides a glimmer of hope for gender equality in Japan

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Shiori Ito. Image courtesy of Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images


Note: This article was originally written for the Shingetsu News Agency.

The Bigger Picture (London) — Shiori Ito won rape lawsuit damages in what may be indicative of the tide turning against Japan’s poor record on gender equality; but for now, Japan’s performance in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2020, released earlier in the week, made for grim reading. The country has dropped even further in the world gender equality rankings, an 11-point drop to 121st out of 153 countries; last place among developed nations, and by far the lowest nation in the G7, behind Italy who ranked at 76th place. While the gender gap has mainly been eliminated in the education and health sector, it is still wide in terms of wages, where they ranked 121st, and political empowerment, where they ranked at 144 out of 152 countries. Only 10.1% of lower house politicians in Japan are female, with a mere three women in Abe’s 19-member cabinet. This means that Japan, a liberal democratic nation, has less female political representation than countries like Russia, where domestic abuse has been “decriminalized”, India, where intermarital rape is legal, and Saudi Arabia, where women were only granted the legal right to drive a year ago.

In what could be seen as the light at the end of a dark tunnel, Shiori Ito was awarded 3.3m yen ($30,000) in damages in her rape lawsuit case on Wednesday. The case has turned into a long, gruelling saga since Ito went public with the allegations in 2017, two years after the original case in 2015 where Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a high-profile Japanese journalist, allegedly raped her following dinner and drinks in which the two discussed a job opportunity. After going public, she wasn’t praised for her bravery or her courage - to the contrary, she was met with widespread death threats, harassment, and public mocking on television by Japanese officials. As a result, Ito was essentially forced to move out of the country and to the United Kingdom, where she currently resides. She also had to go public in the first case because of police inaction; an arrest warrant for Yamaguchi was overturned at the last minute by Itaru Nakamura, the head of criminal investigation at the Tokyo Met, who was also the ex-secretary of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The court recognized, however, that Ito was “forced to have sex without contraception, while in a state of unconsciousness and severe inebriation”, noting that “the plaintiff continues to suffer from flashbacks and panic attacks until now.”. Ito has shown immense resolve and courage to continue pushing for justice in the face of death threats, insults, and the panic attacks she has suffered from as a result of the incident. As she held up a “victory” banner outside Tokyo’s district court following the ruling on Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s close confidant, friend, and biographer had his 130m yen countersuit dismissed.

Shiori Ito holds up a sign displaying the Japanese characters for "victory", as press watch on, outside the Tokyo District Court. Image courtesy of Kyodo News.


This case sums up the role Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party have in causing such a political and social climate in which Japan can score so low in gender equality rankings, and a close friend of a Prime Minister in a developed, liberal democratic nation can be behind such a horrific crime and yet evade justice for several years.

Abe has previously said “women are Japan’s most underused resource”, advocating a society where “all women shine”. But the facts show that rhetoric to be duplicitous. He appoints cabinet ministers, like Finance Minister Taro Aso, who blame sexual harassment victims, and those who publicly claim that women are “child-bearing machines”, like the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare under Abe’s first administration, Hakuo Yanagisawa. His cabinet has endorsed the claim that “the crime of sexual harassment does not exist”, with their woeful attempts to mitigate it amounting to “urging” companies to deal with the issues themselves. Takumi Nemoto, who Abe appointed as Labour Minister, thinks that it is “necessary and appropriate” for corporations in Japan to force women to wear high heels at work, in the face of a movement, #KuToo, led by actress Yumi Ishikawa and backed by tens of thousands of women to end precisely that, because of the unnecessary pain and suffering it causes them.

However, gender equality in Japan goes deeper than just partisan politics, delving to the root of cultural and societal norms in the country. Japan’s toxic work culture that drives many to an early grave is at the heart of it, with only 15% of senior leadership positions in the business sector held by women, and only 3.7% female CEOs; not a single Nikkei 225 listed company is headed by a Japanese woman. Analysis by Kazuo Yamaguchi for the IMF showed that women are promoted to higher positions in corporations at a slower rate than men, due to the misguided belief that women are likely to quit the workforce in order to have children. This is the main reason behind the gender wage gap, he reported.

Employees are expected to spend most of their time at work, sacrificing sleep, holidays and even their wages by spending many hours working unpaid overtime shifts. While both parents in a typical husband-and-wife marriage are granted one year of paid leave, 95% of men opt out, meaning the burden of housework and child-rearing falls at the feet of women, forcing some to quit the labour market. If they do re-enter it after having children, they will most likely go into “non-regular” employment, which is far less stable and secure and poorly paid - but it is is encouraged by government policy, which provides incentives to spouses who earn less in the form of tax exemptions and free pensions, health and long-term care insurance. While women in a typical heterosexual relationship who decide to have children are generally compelled into leaving the workforce, it is unjust and heteronormative to adjust employment policies based on that assertion.

This prejudice also affects the education sector; it has been uncovered that at least nine universities, including most notoriously Tokyo Medical University, have been rigging their exams against females for a number of years, essentially barring them from the sector altogether. But in this year’s exams, which were for once impartial and unbiased, women notched up higher average scores than men.

And there is no reason for these inequalities and prejudices to exist. Japan’s toxic work culture helps no-one. It is causing a labour shortage crisis in which Japan’s workforce is anticipated to decline by almost 13m over the next two decades, and has created a chronic overwork crisis that has even been given its own name; “overwork death”, or karoshi. There is hope that Japan will see sense; opposition parties fielded, on average, around 50% female candidates in last summer’s Upper House elections, and the Constitutional Democratic Party is in support of a gender quota for political elections and the ending of employment and wage discrimination. They have also supported the concept of female emperors; in the Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum highlighted the positive influence of the “role model effect” in ending prejudices and closing the gap. The clock is ticking; Japan’s labour shortage is getting bigger and bigger. Concrete action must be taken to close the gap before it is too late.

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