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#MeToo finally comes to Japan

High-profile sexual harassment scandal raises hard questions about men and women at work

| Japan
Tougher rules on socializing? What's needed is a basic principle for sensibility and respect at work. (Photo by Hiromasa Shudo)

A large Japanese conglomerate recently banned male and female employees going out together for dinner in pairs. Both must be male or both female. Or they must go in a bigger group. The same applies to business trips.

I know this from an employee who told me the story as we were having a business drink together one evening. Even though he is a man and I am a woman our encounter passed his company's rules because I am not a fellow staff member but an outside consultant.

This new corporate rule is just one example of the way the Japanese workplace is changing in the wake of the allegations of sexual harassment which have spread around the world in the past year and emerged in Japan in recent months. I very much welcome such allegations -- which were often buried in silence in the past -- are now coming out into the open with the #MeToo movement. But I am troubled at some of the responses -- including the idea that formal restrictions on men and women meeting in the business environment.

Any decent person would cringe at serious sexual harassment claims, not least the allegations that have made headlines in Japan involving Junichi Fukuda, Japan's former vice finance minister.

The scandal broke after a woman journalist from TV Asahi secretly recorded a private conversation with him in a bar in which he allegedly made inappropriate sexually charged comments. She took the tape to Shincho, a weekly magazine, last month after her line manager at TV Asahi refused to disclose the incident out of concern about the impact on the woman. Fukuda denied wrongdoing but resigned anyway saying the issue was disrupting work at the ministry.

Whether the recorded comments are actually Fukuda's words -- he says he cannot recall the conversation -- the allegations have reverberated around Tokyo because they echo many similar encounters between working men and women.

From talking with my colleagues and friends, male and female, I find three reactions that are particularly striking.

The first is "She had it coming." The journalist allegedly went to meet with Fukuda in a bar in the hope of getting a scoop. The fact that she claims that Fukuda had made sexually charged comments at previous meetings but still agreed to meet him again makes some people think she was setting a "honey trap" for him. They even have some sympathy for Fukuda. Finance Minister Taro Aso went as far as to say that if it were known in advance that Fukuda could behave offensively, TV Asahi should have dispatched a male journalist instead.

As a professional woman, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable about this logic. To excel in our work, men and women can perfectly leverage all their personal capital, both intellectual or emotional. This would include your charm and character. If it is implausible to separate your charm as a woman or a man from your charm as a business person, why should a woman be punished for being appreciated partly for her womanly charm? If women were to be excluded from all face-to-face conversations out of concern over possible sexual harassment, I fear it will hold women back in their careers. They would miss out on gaining information and the informal networks which we all know are important in business.

Making rules for women and men meeting inside and outside a formal work environment is already getting out of control as the example of the conglomerate shows. Rather than imposing such external regulations, we must instead internalize a basic principle -- of showing sensibility and respect at work. Each one of us must judge what is acceptable or not, and respect our colleagues inside and outside our own organizations.

In Fukuda's case, the situation was difficult, given the woman's allegations about previous meetings with him. But it was acceptable for her to see him again as it was considered by TV Asahi as part of the job. The problem is the utter lack of respect that Fukuda allegedly showed. Without respect, the diversity and inclusion agenda that the Japanese government is promoting will sound hollow no matter how much the Shinzo Abe administration proclaims "let the women shine."

The second argument that I have a problem with is "It's not fair that she remains anonymous." In the Fukuda case there is a lot of public support for the alleged victim's anonymity. But I do hear in casual conversation that it is not right that she remains hidden while Fukuda feels forced to resign.

I disagree. When an incident of sexual harassment happens, it must be reported, and swift and fair action should be taken. Reporting often presents a high hurdle as a victim often does not want to be seen as a "complainer" or is afraid of retaliation. The Nikkei newspaper recently reported on a survey of 1,000 working women, in which over 60% of respondents who said they had suffered sexual harassment took no action at all.

To encourage employees to speak up, companies need to create a range of channels. Some people may prefer speaking to their line managers, others may prefer an anonymous hotline. To be fair in an investigation, companies may need to give the alleged victim's name to the alleged offender so that he or she can be confronted with specific claims. But this must be managed in strictest confidence by senior legal professionals including external advisers.

I observe that, amid growing public concern about harassment, more Japanese companies are making their codes of conduct more explicit about such behavior. They are also establishing better processes to deal with allegations. This must be encouraged. The key is to offer a variety of reporting channels, make the proceedings clear, and maintain anonymity beyond the immediate circle of those allegedly involved and the investigators.

The third comment I hear about the Fukuda case, and the most disheartening, is "What's the big deal?" Often, it is voiced by successful professional women (men with the same opinions may be just afraid to speak out for fear of being politically incorrect). They argue that sexually charged comments are not to be taken seriously, that such things happen all the time, and that -- unless there is physical assault -- such language is to be tolerated.

A woman friend from school, a seasoned medical doctor, recalls that in any group drinking sessions with her colleagues, the seating is arranged so that the most senior male doctor is surrounded by women colleagues pouring constantly drink into his glass. It is so normal that she says she does not think twice anymore. Sexually offensive gestures are common, although they are often disguised as borderline praise for a woman's charm. Sometimes, she reflects, she turns a blind eye to disrespectful comments by deceiving herself that they are in fact compliments. After all, what is to be gained by making a fuss?

This is dangerous. The first step to addressing a problem is to recognize that it exists. If women who are already well advanced in their careers are not recognizing the problem, how can the road get easier for a younger generation?

Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has huge potential to deal with the sexual harassment by highlighting how widespread it may be. The Fukuda scandal can serve as a wake-up call for Japan to check if its standards of behavior are good enough and not too different from the standards that have emerged in the U.S. and elsewhere in the wake of the claims against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

If a critical mass of women and men stop taking the current situation in Japan for granted, #MeToo has a chance of fundamentally changing corporate culture. Let the Fukuda scandal be our wakening call.

Nobuko Kobayashi is a Partner with A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, based in Tokyo. She specializes in the consumer sector with a special focus on multi-national corporations operating in Japan.

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