In my previous post (part 1) I discussed the history of sexual harassment law in Japan, and the struggles women continue to face today. But in truth, this series was inspired by a report in The Japan Times about foreign workers in English-language schools.
The article collects information from women who work in private lessons for the Japanese English-education firm GABA. Teachers reported incidents of clients exposing themselves, making lewd remarks, spending 40 minutes staring at a teacher’s breasts during a lesson, and stalking. One client “leant over and looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I want to drink your breast milk.’”
In all cases, the incidents were handled to benefit the client: Rather than being banned from their schools, the client was reassigned to another teacher. In one incident, the teacher was told to continue her lesson; in another, the client was allowed to meet with the same teacher while the incident was ‘investigated.’
JET and Sexual Harassment
At my Tokyo Orientation for JET, I was confused at how normalized the sexual harassment discussions were. I remember one session where a female ALT explained that discrimination was common in the office, and that, if you were a woman, men would expect you make the tea. Women, she suggested, should make the decision themselves whether they wanted to do it, but the context was clear: Not doing so would alienate you from your coworkers. Likewise, inappropriate behavior from teachers should be considered in context, we were told. There was a lot of talk about “putting your cultural experiences aside.”
Alanna, a friend of mine in Japan (who has written for this blog once or twice), had an experience with an aggressive older teacher at a party. When desks were rearranged, she actually ended up being assigned to sit next to him.
“I didn’t complain because I didn’t want to break the wa,” she said. “Stupid.”
(Wa is the vaguely defined social goal of harmonious relationships in Japan. It’s the reason why the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.)
Of course, it isn’t stupid. It’s one of the massive, weird failures of the JET program in its responsibility toward the people it brings to Japan. In orientation sessions and monthly meetings, almost nothing was said about sexual harassment, either by teachers or even by other ALTs (which is a whole other kettle of fish). The primary lesson of orientation isn’t that your rights will be protected. It’s that Japan is ‘different,’ and requires you to orient yourself to that ‘difference.’
As Alanna put it, “Just shut up and pour tea for them.”
I wondered if I was making this up in hindsight, so I took a look at 2014’s JET handbook.
JET and Sexual Harassment
In this year’s (2014) JET Handbook for new ALTs, there is a single, half-page section on Sexual Harassment. There are three subsections. The first, and longest, is ‘Prevention.’ The first sentence is this:
‘If it becomes an issue, discuss views of harassment with your supervisor and colleagues, as their ideas about sexual harassment may differ from yours.’
Immediately, sexual harassment is minimized as a cultural misunderstanding. Already lost in a sea of culture shock and now preyed upon by an aggressive coworker, the JET handbook suggests that sexual harassment is something you’ll have to learn to accommodate as a component of office etiquette and cultural adjustment: A miscommunication.
Weirdly, the JET handbook does not mention that, since 1998, Sexual Harassment has been legally defined, and that this legal definition is expected to be promoted in every workplace in Japan. I can think of one explanation: it’s a wa thing.
We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s look at the second point:
‘Enquire about and take the same precautions Japanese people take, while realising that JET participants do attract attention.’
‘Realizing’ something is a weird step in this process. You’ve been sexually harassed, now what? Realize that your foreignness may have attracted sexual harassment. This seems like we’re moving into a blaming conversation. Then comes these two beauties:
‘Be aware that alcohol compromises your awareness and your ability to defend yourself.’
‘Be aware that inviting someone to your home, flirting, and the way you dress, move, or sit can be misunderstood and seen as an invitation to take liberties.’
These are orders for women to avoid men, and straightforwardly blame sexual harassment on the ALT. You should have stayed aware and defended yourself. The subtle undercurrent of this is, you drank too much. You flirted too much. You dressed like you were asking for it. You ‘misunderstood.’
In the next section, there is an outline of possible options an ALT can take. These include discussing it with a supervisor so you can decide how to ‘improve the situation’. There is no legal definition provided for helping an ALT to identify sexual harassment, even though definitions do exist. There are also no expectations or protocols for the supervisor to follow, presenting the ALT with tremendous uncertainty about what takes place if an incident is reported. For the record, any office manager is legally required to create a safe working space for women who feel that their position has been made uncomfortable by sexual harassment. But that is left out of the handbook, leaving the harassed with a total unawareness of their rights and any idea of what they can expect.
It then turns to weird threats that manipulatively avoid any acknowledgement of legal precedent: ‘Be aware that if you want some sort of action to be taken, other people, including the harasser, will likely be involved.’ This is directly contradictory to Japan’s Sexual Harassment law, which requests that the anonymity of complaints be respected.
So, the JET guidelines for sexual harassment, in summary? Blame the victim; manipulate the victim by denying information designed to empower her, and then turn to vague threats of public shame. All of this would be bad enough, but the section on sexual harassment is one half-page in a massive book which details how to handle problems in the office. The overwhelming message in these sections are strongly oriented toward shutting up.
Defend us from the Wa
Consider this section from the classroom FAQ, which advises ALTs on how to answer inappropriate questions:
Even though this type of question is often innocent, the idea of sexual harassment is well established in Japan, so you can teach them that sexually offensive questions are to be avoided if they want to build positive interpersonal relations. Other approaches include telling them that it is none of their business, laughing about it, or changing the subject.
Full stop. At no point is there any suggestion that because ‘sexual harassment is well established in Japan,’ the student should know better, and the teacher should know to intervene. Individuals are capable of standing up for themselves, but the guidelines once again begin with a defense of the harasser, and suggest that the proper response is to ‘laugh it off’ because the question was probably ‘innocent.’ This is the textbook case of minimizing an incident in order to persuade someone to tolerate it.
And just one example of how the JET handbook is oriented toward solving all problems on the side of wa. On the next page:
An important aspect of Japanese society is the “gaman” spirit. Gaman is a Japanese word meaning ‘endurance’ or ‘perseverance’. Part of being considered a responsible adult in Japan is the ability to ‘hang in there’ in a less-than-pleasant situation instead of drawing attention to yourself by making a lot of noise.
How you respond to a situation, regardless of who is in the wrong or where the misunderstanding lies, can greatly affect the success of your office/school relations and your time in Japan. You need to be determined to make this experience a good one for both yourself and the others in your group.
Taken as a whole, the message of orientation and the Handbook create two themes of manipulation and intimidation. Sexual harassment is a cultural misunderstanding, and you may have invited it by drinking, flirting, dressing inappropriately, or being a foreigner. Laugh it off, or endure it, but if you take action, everyone in your office will find out what happened.
Shut up and pour the tea.
‘Don’t blame yourself’ is the 12th bullet point on the list, by the way. It stands alone without the context of an explanation.
In many sexual harassment incidents I’ve heard about being reported — and it seems like every female ALT I knew had an incident, but few reported them — the supervisors have actually reacted appropriately when the case was brought to their attention, and it was only a matter of time before a teacher is subtly discouraged, or outright isolated / transferred.
The more common scenarios were like Alanna’s. People were made really uncomfortable by a persistent creep, but didn’t believe anything would be done about it, so they didn’t say anything. Here’s Alanna again:
“To be honest though… there ISN’T a lot you can do. If you make a formal complaint, all you will accomplish is getting the staff to hate you for disturbing the peace, or at the very least making them see you as a kind of workplace imperialist, coming in and thinking your foreign ways are superior and imposing them. You have to work with the system to battle harassment; you can’t use American tactics (which would be to make a statement to HR and possibly pursue legal action.)”
When we discussed this, both of us had been JETs for three years: Three years of monthly professional development meetings, three years of contact with other ALTs and three years of working in the same office. And neither of us knew that we actually had every right to use ‘American tactics’ in the case of sexual harassment. But the JET program was so bad at explaining the legal rights of ALTs that we literally could not imagine there was any recourse for being harassed at work.
Pour it Yourself
When you arrive in Japan you’re generally clueless, unmoored, illiterate, and essentially helpless. You develop a dependency on everyone around you. Over time, this dependency becomes part of the social pressure ALTs feel– that ridiculous, culturally inappropriate and impossible desire to belong. We internalize, and combat, the encroaching group orientation of our identities. Most of us go just a little bit crazy.
It appears, to me, that JET almost uses this cultural disorientation to its advantage, by indoctrinating us into the wa as docile employees. I don’t understand why the JET Handbook would deliberately leave information out of the hands of the people it hires, but by doing so, it perpetuates this weird myth of Japan as a land of inevitable sexual harassment. By not telling us what our rights are, it presents the illusion that we don’t have any rights at all.
The JET Programme needs to take some responsibility for education among JETs. The current approach cynically and manipulatively mystifies sexual harassment as part of the disorientation of culture shock. Conveniently, this prevents pesky disruptions of workplace harmony that might reflect poorly on the program. This is transparently dishonest, and does a disservice not only to the victims of sexual harassment, but also to Japanese men who do behave professionally. They are nonetheless lumped in with 30-year-old stereotypes of boorish office behavior.
It could be said that the JET handbook is merely practical, and that’s a solid argument. Situations can be frustrating to deal with and offices are unlikely to want to disrupt things on behalf of a temporary ALT. Sexual harassment issues may be too big for Prefectural Assistants to really handle (most things are, another problem with the program: representatives that lack any form of power).
Nonetheless, the role of JET is to offer resources for the teachers it recruits and ships off to God-knows-where. If the guidelines suggest that the lack of response is a problem, it needs to do more than acknowledge that: It needs to work to improve the conditions of its employees, and guarantee that foreign teachers have the same awareness of rights and recourse that Japanese workers do. At the very least, it needs to inform ALTs of their legal rights and protections from sexual harassment.
Update: Some excellent comments (and fiery debate!) below, which I encourage you to read, and I would also direct you to part 3, a very modest proposal for revamping the JET Programme’s sexual harassment guidelines in the General Information Handbook.