Japanese women remain marooned in a patriarchal paradise

Black Box by Ito Shiori tells the story of her rape by a powerful Japanese man, protected from accountability by other powerful men in the country

More than ever before, Japan draws international interest. Two-and-a-half-million tourists visit the country each month, and whole towns like Niseko in Hokkaido are bought up by foreigners wanting holiday homes overseas. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games will be watched by millions, and Japanese chain stores operating overseas like Daiso are already selling related merchandise. Interest in Japanese language and culture remains high among university students in English-speaking countries, and books with Japan-related themes persist as consumer favourites, including those written by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro.

Fetishizing Japanese culture is a tradition long practised in the Anglo and Francophone worlds — the Pacific War interrupted this trend only momentarily. Celebrating Japanese culture has historically required, though, studied indifference to the plight of the country’s women and children. For example, ukiyo-e wood-block prints — which were sold and consumed by Japanese men as pornography, and produced using women sexually enslaved in Tokyo’s brothel districts as artistic models — were traded and exhibited in Britain and Europe from the mid-19th century. Today’s Western male connoisseurs show equal disregard for the condition of women and children in the country of whose culture they covet.

Japan’s female population places worst among women of the G7 nations in terms of political, public service, and economic participation. Its comparative circumstance, as gauged in international rankings, declined three places in 2017 to a new low of 114 out of 144 countries, which is a downward trend continuing since 2006. Chinese women fare better in a society that does not pressure them to resign employment upon childbirth, or adhere to beauty standards of skeletal thinness and physical self-effacement. One female journalist writes for the Washington Post, “Japanese women have taken it upon themselves to look demure and endure, endure, endure.” Girls from a young age are sexualized, groped on public transport, and prostituted. They are sent the message from birth that female existence rests on looking pretty on a man’s arm, mothering male offspring, and being domestically servile in the male home. As a result, women comprise less than 20 per cent of members of Japan’s national parliament, placing the country 129th out of 144 nations in terms of female political representation.

Rape is a crime committed with near impunity by men of all countries of the world, but rapists enjoy particular licence in Japan. In 2014, only 37.2 per cent of their investigated allegations were scheduled for prosecution, and only 4.3 per cent of their victims reported the crime.

Even when reported, rape is perceived less as a crime than entertainment — in 2015, a Tokyo-based pornography producer explained to a reporter that he studied sex crime reports to get inspiration for his films in order to respond to consumer demand for rape porn. Much of this demand is for the rape of underage girls. Possessing child pornography was not made criminal in Japan until 2014, and the buying and selling of animated depictions of incest, child rape, and other forms of sexual violence against children is still entirely legal. Tokyo’s metropolitan government did not place any restriction on the sale of these products until 2010, and then only small restrictions were made to dissuade children from buying this imagery, meaning successive generations of Japanese men have grown up consuming pornographic depictions of the sexual abuse of their female peers. As adults, these men are unable to perceive of rape as harmful because, as journalist Motoko Rich writes, “Rape is often depicted in manga comics and pornography as an extension of sexual gratification.”

Speaking up publicly as a victim of rape, therefore, attracts the same male outrage, victim-blaming, derision, and ridicule that the former wartime “comfort women” have attracted since the 1990s.

Twenty-eight-year-old journalist Ito Shiori bravely published testimony as a rape victim in Japan in late 2017. Her book, Black Box, describes Ito’s experience attempting to seek recourse for rape through Japan’s police, legal, and health services. The title refers to police repeatedly insisting, over the two-year course of their involvement in her case, that rape is a he-said-she-said crime unknowable because it takes place in private, as if in an opaque “black box” impervious to external scrutiny. Unfortunately for Ito, this analogy did not remain an abstract idea — it came to be realized in jarringly real world terms when a detective erroneously advised her that rape can’t be prosecuted if there is no witness or recorded evidence. While distressed to learn of such a rule, Ito accepted his advice at the time, but after consulting a lawyer friend realized it was false. So, in her book, Ito expands the “black box” analogy to include Japanese police and judicial procedures that make rape investigations a “black box” for victims who are denied correct information and independent review.

Her book describes how a judicially approved arrest warrant was not actioned against Ito’s rapist on the last-minute order of a high-ranking police officer named Nakamura Itaru who had formerly been a ministerial staffer with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In a May 2017 interview with a weekly magazine, Nakamura, who was then head of the criminal investigation division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, admitted to having issued the order, thereby overruling the Takanawa district police handling the case. He did not elaborate as to his reasoning, nor did he respond to questions from Ito and others as to why he gave the order. He was not required to appear before a Diet select committee in November 2017 inquiring into Ito’s case. His decision was left unchallenged by a citizens’ forensic review panel, the “committee for the inquest of prosecution,” convened to assess police failure to refer Ito’s complaint for prosecution. This committee, comprised of seven men and four women, declined to supply reasons for their view that police inaction did not warrant reconsideration.

The extent to which outside influence affected the outcome of Ito’s case was also notably opaque: Ito’s accused attacker was former Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) Washington Bureau chief Yamaguchi Noriyuki, who wrote a hagiographic biography of Japan’s current prime minister. He appeared regularly on local television chat shows and was famous enough to be the subject of reports in Japan’s mainstream press.

Ito describes rape as a crime “murderous of the soul,” and her written narrative in Black Box renders all other description inadequate. She was drugged and dragged into a room in Tokyo’s Sheraton Miyako Hotel where she woke up being sexually penetrated and in pain, a bright-screen laptop computer facing towards her from atop a bookshelf. In a haze, Ito gave voice to the pain she was experiencing, but the attack continued. She was finally able to break free and flee to the bathroom where she saw her naked body swollen red. At that moment she feared she was going to be murdered. In panic, she exited the bathroom and headed for the hotel room door, but was dragged back to the bed. Her attacker continued, and pushed Ito’s head into the bed so forcefully she could not breathe; she imagined her mother’s crying face on morning news broadcasts after her dead body had been found. After finally letting her go, he asked for her underpants as a “souvenir.”

Over the next two years, she had to tell, and retell, her account of the crime to so many different male police officers she lost count (only eight per cent of police in Japan are female). Worryingly, some of these statements were given in front of groups of officers in a fashion Ito felt was pornographic. She was repeatedly asked whether she was a virgin at the time of the incident, and was asked to participate in a crime scene “re-enactment” as part of the police investigation:

“The re-enactment wasn’t done at the scene but instead at a martial arts training room on the top floor of Takanawa police headquarters. The floor was covered in a blue plastic mat, and hanging on the walls was gear that looked like martial arts uniforms. The room slightly smelled of sweat, so it seemed like it was being used for physical training by lots of police. The re-enactment was done in this room in front of a bunch of police officers—all male—and involved re-enacting the rape scene using a plastic doll as the perpetrator.

‘Ok, now go to sleep over there’, I was told, as I lay on my back in the room surrounded by male officers. One of these officers then placed the lifelike, human-size doll on top of my body.

‘Is this about right?’ ‘Perhaps if we move it a bit this way?’, the officer said as he moved the doll on top of me. The flash of the camera went off, and as the shutter began to click I found my disassociating self completely frozen.”

While the minimum penalty for rape in Japan was raised from three to five years in 2017, Ito’s attacker was facing only a three year sentence, as the crime was perpetrated in 2015. In reality, he faced no such penalty — the case did not proceed to prosecution, let alone conviction or sentencing. This was in spite of taxi driver testimony and security camera footage of him escorting an unconscious Ito into the Tokyo hotel, and the existence of an email he wrote to Ito, admitting to having sexually penetrated her (in the context of a discussion about needing to procure the morning-after-pill the following day).

In October 2017, Yamaguchi published an “open letter” in a monthly magazine, criticizing Ito’s testimony, and appeared on television talk shows to defame Ito and defend himself. In 2019, another magazine reported that politicians high up in Japan’s ruling party had called on personal connections to have an advertising company provide him with a monthly stipend after news of his crimes broke in late 2016 and he was forced to relinquish his job. As the biographer of Japan’s current prime minister, it was well known that Yamaguchi was close to members of Japan’s ruling party, but it was only later reported that the prime minister had attended his wedding.

With her criminal case thwarted, Ito was forced to bring a civil claim against Yamaguchi for restitution of roughly US$100,000. The suit was first heard in the Tokyo district court in December 2017, and is scheduled for judgement this month. However, in February, pre-empting this outcome, Yamaguchi waged a countersuit against her for apology and payment of 130 million yen (roughly a million US dollars) in response to Ito’s civil claim for restitution for mental suffering sustained as a result of the assault. Notably, his claim is 10 times the size of Ito’s. The large amount reportedly accounts for past and future lost earnings as a result of reputational damage that saw forfeited TV appearances and income from media consultancies, as well as mental suffering due to nuisance calls received by Yamaguchi’s friends and family calling him a rapist.

Four years after the horrifying sexual assault, Ito now faces the questioning of Yamaguchi’s lawyers, the prospect of losing a civil case and sustaining financial ruin, and the likehood of her rapist enjoying — and continuing to enjoy — protection and support from men in the top echelons of her home country (Ito was forced to flee to England to escape harassment and public vilification). Thankfully, local feminists rallied around Ito in her quest for justice, and, in April, they launched a group to support her while facing the perpetrator’s counter-civil suit. Since then, the group’s activities have overlapped with regular “flower demonstrations” held throughout Japan’s major cities that protest judicial decision-making in rape and sexual assault cases. These cases recently included the acquittal of a father who was recognized by the court as having raped his daughter throughout her childhood.

As shown in that case as well as Ito’s, Japan exists as a “black box” nation whose female members are marooned in a society that enables the crimes of sexually hostile men. They are left stranded within a force field of glamour and global prestige radiating outwards from the country’s borders that obscures sexual abuses and degradations from international view, which attracts no justice and often leave victims suicidal. Japanese men have enjoyed global acclaim since the end of the Pacific War, in the form of Nobel prizes, seats at geopolitical tables, and loving strokes by the Western art world. In return for this enduring global patriarchal embrace, they sell their foreign brothers their countrywomen and children packaged up as endearing geisha, comic book seductresses, and strung-up-and-passed-out pornography stars. The nation is a “black box” for its women and children, as the world’s men collude to leave Asia’s pretty patriarchal paradise untouched and free of outside scrutiny.

Caroline Norma is a senior research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, and recently authored the book, “Comfort women and post-occupation corporate Japan” (Routledge, 2018).

Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current's amazing guest writers.