The only female assembly member in a small popular hotspring resort town has been ousted, a year after she went public with allegations that she had been sexually assaulted by the town mayor.
In the case in Kusatsu in Gunma prefecture, three hours north-west of Tokyo, Ms Shoko Arai, 51, said town mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa, 73, “suddenly pulled me closer, kissed me and pushed me down on the floor” in 2015.
Mr Kuroiwa described the allegations as “100 per cent complete lie and fabrication”, and his supporters instigated a public referendum to expel Ms Arai from the council. She overwhelmingly lost in the vote on Dec 6.
Ms Arai told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last Friday that Mr Kuroiwa’s smear campaigns and attempts to discredit her amounted to a “public second rape”.
She was heckled by supporters of Mr Kuroiwa in the assembly when he asked her to recount exactly how he had sexually assaulted her, brandishing an enlarged photograph of his office. She was also asked to reveal the identities of several other people who had told her that they were also victims.
Mr Kuroiwa has lodged a police report and sued Ms Arai for defamation, accusing her of having ulterior motives due to a dispute over a municipal matter.
The case underscores how the odds are stacked against women in male-dominated Japan. A 2017 government survey showed that only 4.3 per cent of victims come forward, while the global #MeToo movement against sexual abuse was low-key in Japan.
The government has failed to meet gender equality targets of 30 per cent women in politics and business managerial positions that it had hoped to achieve by this year, shifting the goalposts back by a decade to 2030.
Just 9.9 per cent of lawmakers in the Lower House of Japan’s bicameral Parliament are women, placing the country 167th in the world, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Japan is ranked lower than Saudi Arabia (114th, with 19.9 per cent women) and North Korea (123rd, with 17.6 per cent women).
In business, 11.4 per cent of managerial positions in private firms are held by women, and 6.4 per cent in listed companies in Japan.
“We often hear the question of why the #MeToo movement has not gained any momentum in Japan,” Ms Arai said. “This is because in such a male-dominant society, there is an atmosphere which makes it difficult for women in weaker positions to speak up. They are instead crushed, and this has been the case for me.”
Questions have already been asked in local and international media over letting due process run its course, given that Mr Kuroiwa has filed a civil complaint.
“Such proceedings take a great amount of time,” Mr Kuroiwa told a separate news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Dec 14.
“She is posing as a victim but has not gone to the police nor filed any civil complaint,” he said, alleging that Ms Arai’s failure to seek legal action was proof she had faked her claims. “For the past year she has not produced a single shred of evidence but has continued to damage my honour and the dignity of the town.”
More victims speaking up about sexual abuse
TOKYO • There has been a deafening silence among victims of sexual abuse in Japan, with the reluctance to come forward born out of fear of public ridicule and scorn.
This fear is perpetrated by opinions like those held by ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, Ms Mio Sugita, 53, who in September said at a party meeting to discuss support for sexual violence victims: “Women can tell lies as much as they want.”
Nonetheless, victims are starting to raise their voices – the latest being Ms Shoko Arai, 51, who was ousted from the Kusatsu town assembly after going public with allegations that she was sexually assaulted by Mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa, 73.
The Straits Times looks at other sexual harassment cases in Japan.
FACE OF #METOO MOVEMENT
Freelance journalist Shiori Ito, 31, was named in Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people this year for being the face of Japan’s #MeToo movement.
She publicly accused high-profile reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi, 53, a biographer of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, of raping her. When prosecutors declined to charge him, she took her fight to the civil court and won.
In December last year, she was awarded 3.3 million yen ($42,300) in damages by the Tokyo District Court, which also struck out a countersuit filed by Mr Yamaguchi.
TOP CIVIL SERVANT RESIGNS
Mr Junichi Fukuda, 60, resigned as the highest-ranking civil servant in the Finance Ministry in April 2018, following accusations he had harassed female journalists by making lewd comments such as “Can I touch your breast?” and “Should we have an affair when the budget is enacted?”
He said the scandal had left him unable to do his job.
Ms Arai claimed the alleged incident took place in January 2015. She said she initially feared going public, but felt it was time to do so in an e-book in November last year.
Mr Kuroiwa was livid and instigated her expulsion from the 12-member assembly a month later. This was overturned by Gunma prefecture authorities, which said the dismissal was illegal and reinstated Ms Arai in August this year.
This was short-lived, as Mr Kuroiwa and his allies spearheaded a public referendum to oust her this month. These steps in retribution, Ms Arai said, amounted to “an abuse of power to remove a person inconvenient to him”.
She alleged unfairness in the electoral process, given that Kusatsu is a small town of 6,211 residents. “It is also easy to find out who has voted and who has not. It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire town is under surveillance.”
Only 2,750 valid ballots were cast in the recall vote, with 2,542 in support of Ms Arai’s ouster and 208 opposing the move.
Ms Arai noted that many of the town’s assembly members own hotels and ryokan inns that create jobs for residents. She asked: “How many people can refuse to vote according to the direction of their boss?”
Mr Kuroiwa stressed he does not oppose having women assembly members. “The recall does not mean women are being excluded from the assembly… Arai is turning public opinion into a myth about misogyny,” he said. “People of Kusatsu want to see female members in the assembly, and I want to pride myself for being a gentleman.”
Ms Arai said she stands by her allegation and will continue to fight for women so that they can be fearless about speaking out.