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Japan -- almost silent over #MeToo

Sexual harassment is widespread but rarely discussed in public. This must change

The "#MeToo" movement has spread around the globe, but not much is seen to occur in Japan.   © Reuters

The global movement of #MeToo, the protest movement against sexual harassment, has spread around the world at tsunami speed since the first allegations were leveled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

As it has multiplied, it has developed in different forms in different countries. But where is Japan in #MeToo? The answer is nowhere, really, and that for me is troubling.

It is not as if Japan is some sort of nirvana, free of sexual harassment. But it does appear that Japanese women are extremely cautious about speaking out. And when they do, the public reaction is often very muted, in contrast to the storms generated in the U.S., in parts of Europe and even in the emerging world, notably in India.

A few months before the first women complained publicly about Weinstein, Shiori Ito, a young female journalist, went public with claims that she had been raped in a Tokyo hotel room by a senior male television correspondent with political connections. She alleged the assault happened in May 2015 after a meeting in a sushi restaurant to discuss work opportunities. She felt dizzy, she said, and only recovered consciousness after the attack, when she felt pain and realized what had taken place. The police investigated but prosecutors dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence. Last September, Ito filed a civil case against her alleged attacker, who has publicly denied her accusations.

My point in recounting these allegations is to emphasize that they received little publicity. The case has hardly caught the national attention in Japan, even with #MeToo roaring around the globe.

The contrast with other countries is striking. Britain, for example, has followed the U.S. closely in emphasizing the protection of women, in ways that at times seemed almost obsessive. In France, film star Catherine Deneuve put her name to a letter condemning Anglo-Saxon "puritanism" though she later made clear she utterly opposed sexual "harassment". In India the #MeToo protests focused on the awful tragedy of child abuse, with researchers the highlighting a 2007 government study that estimated that more than half of Indian children suffered from some kind of sexual abuse.

It is not as if there is no sexual harassment in Japan. Far from it. The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training in 2016 published a survey showing that 29% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work. That is higher than the 22% reported by Pew Research in 2017 study in the U.S. For full-time workers only, the figure rises to 35% in Japan.

The relative silence on sexual harassment in Japan despite its in-your-face prevalence can be partially attributed to the long-standing Japanese tradition of prioritizing group harmony at the expense of individual suffering.

But there is more -- sexual harassment at work comes in many shades. Typically, cases in Western countries involve men with higher status taking advantage of more junior women, who are often climbing up the professional ladder. Women who have leveled accusations against Weinstein, including young actresses at the time of the alleged assaults, fit this pattern. In Japan, the claims voiced by Shiori Ito appear similar.

But in Japan, however, in addition to this "Western" or "global" formula, I observe two other patterns which tend to breed silence.

First, there are still two parallel corporate worlds -- the male and the female. Strict gender role division is still a central feature of modern Japanese corporate life. Although the model is certainly not unique to Japan, it has lasted much longer in Japan than in the U.S. or much of Europe.

Men in the workplace take advantage of women of junior status -- even though the women know that they can rarely aspire to promotion as managers. They will mostly remain support or administrative staff. So why do they submit to the unwanted advances of senior males when they cannot hope of corporate advance? The answer is that some women, at least, feel that they can secure an ambitious and successful husband in this way.

There is here a blurred line between consensual relationship and sexual harassment. At what point does a senior male manager's assertive behavior towards a junior woman become harassment? Does it make a difference whether the woman who is a subordinate in his department or works elsewhere in the company? At what point can the manager be accused of exploiting his position? To what extent is a woman inhibited from saying no because of corporate rules which generally demand obedience to superiors?

There is also what I call "low-level" sexual harassment. Unwelcome verbal banter. It affects people like me -- "career women" who are allegedly on an equal professional footing with men. Almost everywhere, I hear comments from older male colleagues on a woman's appearance or marital status and questions such as "Why do you never wear skirts but pants to work?" Women generally respond with silence than claim sexual harassment. But that does not mean they have not taken offence.

Complaining is difficult. I have witnessed -- at meetings of senior company executives -- how such disturbing comments are casually brushed aside as light-hearted jokes. What can you expect when the leadership is 90% male? But such attitudes exasperate women, and no doubt discourage some from seeking promotions.

This combination of gender stereotyping and juvenile joke-making contribute to holding back women's careers. Japan is an advanced economy, but just 13% of corporate managers are female, the lowest ratio among OECD countries. A lack of senior female executives creates a lack of critical mass in challenging harassment.

The long-term answer is clear. Put men and women on an equal footing, and harness the power of diversity. Promote equality at work and support family life with, for example better child care, so women are freer to advance their careers.

But what can be done in the meantime? Companies need to place a critical mass of women in groups that influence top managers on gender-related issues. These managers must make clear that there is zero tolerance for hurtful or disrespectful comments and behavior. Communication lines must be established so incidents can be anonymously reported and the alleged offenders confronted in private with the accusations.

Rather than talking vaguely about stopping sexual harassment, the government must start defining specific types of unwelcome behavior. If the workplace reforms by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intend to make the factory and the office a better place for women, then women and men alike need to feel they are respected at work.

Lastly women must realize they have the right and the responsibility to speak up against the inappropriate. While #MeToo in Japan may never be quite the same sensation as elsewhere, Japanese people need to learn that silence about harassment does not eliminate harassment. Quite the opposite.

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner at A.T. Kearney in Tokyo.

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