Japan’s Bill Cosby?

This is the big scandal presently riveting the attention of the Japanese public. Popular boy band TOKIO Star Tatsuya Yamaguchi was accused of “indecent behavior” with a high school-aged girl (he is said to have “plied” her with alcohol and forced her to kiss him), which led to a public, tearful apology and possibly the end of his lucrative career.

In Japan, it is exceedingly unusual for sexual offenders to face consequences for their actions. Victims of sex crimes rarely report them (estimates range from 5 to 18%). Even when they do, perpetrators usually face light or no punishment. Rape victims experience intense social stigma and it is not peculiar for rapists to diminish their culpability by attributing their behavior to drunkenness. Rape cases are often “resolved” by a private apology with some money thrown in.

Yamaguchi’s own accuser also withdrew her complaint after a private settlement. What makes his case notable is the act of public shaming, the dramatic televised apology. While public ceremonial apologies are common in Japan, they rarely if ever have been offered by (alleged) sexual offenders.

To people outside Japan, a public apology may seem a rather pathetically trivial consequence for a perpetrator to face, but as an indicator of a possible shift occurring toward fairer treatment of sex crime victims, Yamaguchi’s comeuppance could be construed as comparably important as the rape conviction of Bill Cosby in the U.S. It occurs at the same time as a sexual harassment scandal has been clawing at Finance Minister Taro Aso since an official of the ministry, Junichi Fukuda, resigned after being accused of sexually harassing a reporter.

Unlike in many other countries, the #metoo movement has made little visible impression on Japan, and what little overt influence it might have had appears to now be subject to a backlash. The unusual case of journalist Shiori Ito courageously coming forward seems to be the exception that proves the rule that Japanese society, for a range of cultural and legal reasons, is not comfortable with seriously contending with its problems of sexual harassment and abuse.

But has the #metoo movement had no impact whatsoever? The Japanese are aware of the movement and the many celebrities in other countries, especially America, who have lost their careers over charges of sexual harassment and assault. The issue has been inserted, if only by osmosis, into the present zeitgeist of the country. So it is fair to speculate that the change potentially signaled by Yamaguchi’s public shaming and the fact that sexual harassment appears to be less controversially a reason for forced resignations of powerful men is at least an indirect result of the influence of the #metoo movement on Japan.

Here’s to more social and legal protections for Japanese women against sexual abuse and more power to the brave, intrepid activists of the #metoo movement!



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