On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 1)


Last week, Ayaka Shiomura, a 35-year-old lawmaker in Tokyo, was raising questions about the role of working mothers in Japan when someone started jeering.

“Why don’t you get married?” one voice shouted out. Then another: “Can’t you have a baby?”


Ayaka Shiomura, who seems pretty cool to me

This wasn’t the act of men’s-rights activists or a drunken outburst at an enkai. The jeering was coming from fellow lawmakers. And after enduring the abuse for doing her job — on behalf of women — Shiomura broke down in tears, carrying on in the face of a public shaming and degradation in a culture that allegedly respects courtesy and harmony.

Get Them In the Seats
Women do not have an easy go of things in Japan. Leadership roles in Japan are held by men in 89% of private companies, and even more in public positions. Women also hold just slightly more than 10% of the positions in public office.This despite Prime Minister Abe’s pledge to increase leadership roles for women to 30% in the next five years, which would be a good move, given that Goldman Sachs estimates increased employment for women could boost Japan’s GDP 12.5% at a time of massive public debt, and add more than 7 million jobs in the face of a labor shortage.


Skymark Stewardesses and Excited Man, 2014

But 2014 has been less than hospitable to women. Just as Shiomura was being shouted down by grown men in public office, Skymark Airlines unveiled a new uniform for its stewardesses that union members complained made it too easy for passengers to stare up skirts or even take photographs. The airline says the ‘retro look’ — evocative of the 1960s —  is just designed to bring in more customers. Union reps suggest that’s exactly the problem — it commodifies the women who work for them.

A Foreign Concept
Sexual Harassment is, literally, a foreign concept in Japan. The legal term is native Japanese: seiteki iyagarase, ‘sex trouble,’ or ‘sexual unpleasantness,’ but the media has nonetheless adopted a katakanized loan word from the English, ‘sekuhara,’ combining the Japanified words ‘sexual’ (seku) and ‘harassment’ (hara). I find it fascinating to see when foreign loan words are used in Japan — differentiated through the use of its own alphabet, and likely favored because it reinforces that this is a ‘Western’ problem that comes from a mindset outside of Japan. Traditional gender roles are rigid in Japan, and introducing this as a foreign concept in the press helps shift the focus, a little, toward believing it’s not really a ‘Japanese problem.’

And for years, it wasn’t. While the US passed sexual harassment laws in 1965, Japan didn’t pass anything acknowledging sexual harassment until nearly 25 years later. While the problem most certainly existed, Japanese culture emphasized group harmony, male leadership, and subservient women. Complaints about sexual harassment were not socially encouraged, as it would disrupt the harmony of the workplace, where even today, Women are expected to pour tea for their male equals, and to answer the phone on their behalf. And when it came to sexual harassment, as with most Western sexual harassment cases, the burden was on the woman not to complain, rather than on men not to harass them.

Japan’s reliance on group oriented harmony often leads to mandatory social outings where men and women consume vast amounts of alcohol and ‘let loose.’ To a certain degree, the drunker you get, and the more embarrassing you are to yourself, the more you are perceived as ‘trusting’ your co-workers. Getting drunk and making a pass at the pretty young secretary is rewarded, as it shows a degree of abandon and trust. Women who complain about this behavior, on the other hand, are causing a scene — disrupting the harmony and the relaxed atmosphere of the party or the office.

These parties also host a uniquely prominent form of sexual harassment in Japan, which continues today: The ‘forced karaoke duet,’ in which a young woman is forced to sing romantic songs with a domineering male co-worker. The ‘performance’ creates a situation where the woman is socially pressured into ‘acting’ as a romantic partner for the man, who then more or less paws at her in front of co-workers in a situation she cannot escape without disrupting the ‘fun’ of the evening out. Social control created a condition where this was tolerated, and the victim compelled to mask her discomfort in order to maintain the harmonious atmosphere.

The Japanese Anita Hill
That started to change, legally anyway, in 1989, when a court case in Fukuoka ruled in favor of an editor who had been subjected to the spreading of sexual rumors by a co-worker after his pay, which was three times higher than hers for the same job, had been reduced to give her a raise. He told clients she wrote pornographic novels, was sleeping with the boss and many other men, and that she had something wrong ‘down there’ when she went to get a cyst removed.

When the victim told her boss she wanted her co-worker to apologize, he suggested that the two of them discuss the matter, and wouldn’t take it any further. When a new boss was transferred in, he finally agreed that there was a real problem with the office harmony. The best decision, he decided, was to fire the victim.

This case became something of a landmark in raising consciousness of sexual harassment in Japan, akin to the Anita Hill case in the US. When the case was first reported, it spawned a flurry of public interest: 10 books were published, running the gamut from translations of English-language feminist guidebooks to ‘how not to harass women’ texts for men. On the other hand, there was also a guide book instructing men how to continue their behavior and get away with it (Huen, 2007). Sekuhara was named 1989’s ‘Word of the Year.’

The case was resolved in the victim’s favor in 1992, awarding her about $16,000 in damages,  the first sexual harassment lawsuit in Japanese history. After this came a series of legislation, but not before introducing one stunning business model to fulfill a new ‘gap’ in Japanese society.

Kazue Shimada, a former secretary, opened up a business in which she would call women that men now couldn’t otherwise approach. For 180,000 yen, Shimada would track down any woman and call them until they relented to a meeting with her client — called an ‘attack course.’ When questioned at the time as to whether this was just commercialized sekuhara, Shimada responded it couldn’t be: She made sure the men really were passionate about the women. Besides that, she pointed out, the women could always hang up.

Japanese Sexual Harassment Law
After the verdict in 1992, there was some degree of legal precedent in sexual harassment cases in Japan. The law, for example, established two forms of sexual harassment: daisho, in which rewards or penalties are explicitly linked to sexual acts, and kankyo, in which the environment is made unpleasant through sexual talk or jokes, touching, or hanging sexually explicit posters. This applies to everyone in an office, including customers.

In 1998, this precedent was bolstered by a new law. The new law put the onus on management to prevent sexual harassment through three steps (Huen, 2007):

Firstly, employers must clarify and disseminate policies against sexual harassment and educate employees through measures such as handbooks and seminars. Secondly, employers must set up an objective system to address complaints and grievances. Thirdly, employers are obligated to be prompt in responding to sexual harassment claims, and they should investigate and implement disciplinary actions. The guidelines also request employers to protect the privacy of employees who file sexual harassment complaints and to adopt anti-retaliation policies.

The downside of this law is, in hindsight, a pretty major one: There was no penalty for violating it. Well, there was one: The government could publicly shame the company that failed to meet these standards. The idea was that social pressure would prevent men from acting against the interest of their company’s public image — keeping with a tradition in Japanese law to deal with social problems through social pressure, rather than rigid lawmaking (see tobacco regulations for another example).

Unfortunately, or by design, if you’re a skeptic, the culture and the law don’t always match up. A Japanese woman being harassed in an office would be mortified to bring about the public shaming of her company, and the law simply created the opposite of its intended effects: By introducing the risk that a complaint would result in the public shaming of her supervisors and the company she works for, women were pressured into keeping silent.

Nonetheless, the laws, and the consciousness it has raised, has resulted in an increase of reported sexual harassment in the decades since it has passed: A year-long review of reports ending in March by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reflected 11,898 cases, more than half filed by women themselves (and many filed by companies on the women’s behalf).  While an increase in sexual harassment charges hardly seems worth cheering, the fact is, this increase in reports shows that new generations of women are more aware of, and comfortable, responding to sexual harassment. And this means that more corporations are creating environments where sekuhara can be reported and addressed.

I’d like to see surveys on what, exactly, women in Japan consider sexual harassment in Japan, and what is part of the everyday sexism that permeates the culture — a place where 2,000 women in Tokyo alone have been groped on subways (and again, that’s just what’s reported). Many cultural ‘institutions’ such as male-only parties in red-light districts are still common, and would unlikely be considered a form of discrimination in Japan. I’d be interested to hear any stories or anecdotes of your own in the comments!

In Part 2 (here), I address how sexual harassment is handled in the ALT world.

Huen, Y. (2007). Workplace Sexual Harassment in Japan: A Review of Combating Measures Taken. Asian Survey Vol. 47, No. 5. (pp. 811-827)

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13 Responses to On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 1)

  1. Tokyojin says:

    Have you seen this?

    The MOFA document in question is here: http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/gaiko/kiyaku/pdfs/kenkai_130517_en.pdf

    Read section 20, section 21 is interesting for different reasons.

    There was also this article about Gaba published last week in the Japan Times:

  2. Londonjin says:

    From my (limited) experience in Japan men and women are view as so fundamentally different that any change will be hard to come by. At a technology networking event many people commented on how many women had turned up and how this was a nice bonus for all the guys; nudge nudge wink wink.

    I also sat next to a Japanese man on a BA flight who was absolutely flabbergasted by a male flight attendant. “Is this normal?” he asked me. “Is what normal?” I replied, before clocking the real meaning.

    Of course, as an outsider it is hard to raise any kind of grievance. If you don’t tow the party line, for whatever reason, it is branded as “Oh, of course, that’s what foreigners think. Or even worse, attempts at subversion are just viewed as idiocy “Of course he doesn’t understand, he’s a foreigner”. People who decide to challenge the status quo are few and far between.

    What are really want to ask is what can be done about this? Where will the change come from? What action will precipitate the breakdown of gender roles? Sadly, I have no answers.

  3. figtree23 says:

    My wife is Japanese and our daughter is obviously a ‘hafa’. It upsets me that the country I love has such problems. Sadly, I don’t think anything will change.

  4. Kelly says:

    I think ALTs especially tread a very difficult line – the fact is, you can only view the society and culture through the lens you’ve been provided. And as often as frustrated foreigners in any country talk about cultural practices they see as inappropriate, far too few realize two crucial components of the conversation: Who is speaking for whom, and from what position?

    While there is no doubt that Ayaka was treated unfairly by her supposed colleagues, and there is absolutely no doubt that these “red-light” districts do a booming business every night, our place, as foreigners, as non-Japanese, is not to lead the charge. We’re likely to gallop off in the wrong direction, no matter how right we think we are. We do have a place – we can support women like Ayaka and the stewardesses who complain. But in trying to force a culture that is not our own to conform to our knowledge of social order and acceptability, we are performing an even greater social injustice than the one we seek to eliminate.

    Full disclosure, I was an ALT for 5 years, am married to a Japanese man and have a happa daughter. We currently live in South Africa, where I have recently come to terms with the cultural concept of lobola (brideprice), which was a far harder sell than the karaoke duets by far. But it turns out, maybe the western feminists aren’t so right on their evaluation of that particular practice either…

  5. Sea Sal says:

    Like all changes…it will take women… ( the offended) to rise and revolt…to DEMAND to be respected or expect dark consequences…they haven’t banded quite enough yet…but BEWARE…”He’ll hath no fury, like a woman scorned!” x billions…

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