#WithYou: How women journalists in Japan are fighting harassment

Hiroshi Shinozuka, general manager of TV Asahi's news division, meets the press in Tokyo after the alleged sexual harassment of one of the broadcaster's employees by a top government bureaucrat. Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images.

It began with a recording of a woman parrying the unwanted sexual attentions of an older, powerful man. “Can I touch your breasts… can I give you a hug?” he asks, ignoring her pleas to stop. It was not the first time. She alerted a male supervisor, who advised her to drop her complaint. Instead, she took the recording to a weekly magazine, which published one of the biggest scoops of the year in Japan.

The man on the tape, reported the weekly Shukan Shincho magazine, is the nation’s top finance bureaucrat. Or, rather, he was. Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda quit his post in May, and maintains his innocence. The woman is a reporter for broadcast network TV Asahi, which explained its initial response—threatening to reprimand her for going public with the conversation without consent from her source—by saying it wanted to protect her from “further indignity.” Her story prompted others to come forward, and the rampant sexual harassment toward female reporters in Japan finally began spilling out.

Yuki Katayama, a veteran journalist and reporter for the regional Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, recalls being propositioned for sex in the back of a car by a senior police officer. She was visibly pregnant at the time. Kaori Hayashi, a journalist-turned-academic who now teaches at the University of Tokyo, says she left the industry in the 1990s partly because such experiences made it toxic. “I was groped, touched, or else discounted because I was a young woman,” she says.

The encounters are so routine, lamented Katayama, that female reporters must learn to either laugh them off or quit. “If we raise a fuss about sexual harassment our sources will dry up,” she wrote in the Hokkaido Shimbun. In May, however, she began to rethink a professional lifetime of silence: “I was mentoring a junior reporter who confided in me. She said she felt ill because every time she goes for drinks with an important source, he touches her and uses obscenities. She said, her voice shaking, ‘I can’t work as a reporter any more.’ I thought: ‘I have a responsibility to her.’”

The Fukuda scandal seems to have opened a great well of anger, frustration, and guilt.  It has triggered a wider attempt to change the industry, taking its cue from the global #MeToo storm but known in Japan as #WithYou. “Many women feel guilty because they haven’t fought, and a new generation are coming in and they’re not able to take it,” said another female journalist during the aftermath. “We report on these things sometimes, but we are unable to confront it in our own industry. We have this mission to become the voice of the voiceless, but these women realize they themselves are the voiceless.”

The movement has already had some impact. During a few heady weeks in April and May, claims of harassment shamed top officials, forced the government into a humiliating climbdown, and triggered a rare debate in a country where women have traditionally declined to speak up out of fear of victim shaming.

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JAPAN’S WORKFORCE is unusually lopsided: Women make up more than half of all employees but they have barely dented senior management. In journalism, the percentage of women reporters has nearly doubled to about 20 percent since 2001 when the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association began counting. But women occupy just 5.6 percent of managerial posts in newspapers and wire services. (They fare better in broadcasting: 13.7 percent.) Among the handful of powerful women in the industry are Keiko Chino, an editorial board member of The Sankei newspaper, and Kazue Yonamine, chief editor of The Okinawa Times.

Harassment is rife: 30 percent of Japanese women report unwanted sexual attention at work, according to Japan’s health ministry. Though hardly exceptional by international standards (the figure is higher in the UK, for example), women in the media are particularly at risk. The peculiarities of reporting in Japan involve long hours spent socializing with mostly male sources. Junior reporters are typically dispatched to regional bureaus where they are assigned to press clubs attached to government offices and police stations. Beating rivals to the punch in a system built on access journalism involves cultivating sources, who may not be above using information as bait for sexual favors. A survey this year found that a third of the perpetrators of sexual harassment against female reporters are police officers, politicians, or government officials. Male reporters have been known to joke about the supposed advantages enjoyed by their female colleagues in this grubby game.

 

Junior reporters are typically dispatched to regional bureaus where they are assigned to press clubs attached to government offices and police stations. Beating rivals to the punch in a system built on access journalism involves cultivating sources, who may not be above using information as bait for sexual favors

 

The code of silence starts even before women land a position: New recruits are asked during interviews whether they can handle sexual harassment because it is considered part of the job, says Kumiko Nakatsuka, former president of the Asahi Shimbun Workers’ Union Osaka branch. Women build the all-important quality of gaman—endurance—into their mental job spec. “This is how they are made to believe they are wrong and to think of harassment as acceptable,” says Nakatsuka.

Victims who speak out may get little sympathy from the public, or even employees. Shiori Ito, a freelance journalist who says she was drugged and raped in a Tokyo hotel by a well-known television reporter in 2015, went public with her claims after the police declined to pursue the case (amid allegations of political pressure). A flood of hate mail branded her a “prostitute” who had brought the assault on herself. With the exception of the racy tabloid weeklies, the domestic media has made little of her story. She now lives in London.

 

IN MAY, A GROUP of 86 journalists formed the Women in Media Network Japan (WiMN), partly to generate solidarity for victims like Ito and to “expose harassment and abuse,” said one of its leaders, Yoshiko Hayashi. (full disclosure: Chie Matsumoto is part of the campaign). While the #MeToo moment flared briefly in Japan, the Japanese hashtag quickly morphed into #WithYou—an acknowledgment that victims in Japan might not want to admit it has happened to them, even now. #WithYou expresses solidarity with women like Ito while demanding an end to harassment. Women reporters were taken aback by the way TV Asahi handled the case, says Nakatsuka. (The reporter remains anonymous.)

It didn’t help that Finance Minister Taro Aso, Fukuda’s boss, dismissed the bureaucrat’s misdeeds, saying the two had “talked” and he saw no need to take the matter further. He later grumbled about Fukuda’s human rights, hinted that he had been victim of a honey trap, and said that sexual harassment was not, in any case, illegal in Japan. The way to stop harassment of women reporters, he said, is to replace them with men.

Instead of launching a third-party investigation into the claims, Finance Ministry bureaucrats posted Fukuda’s denials on its website and called for his victims to come forward for interview—with its own team of hired lawyers. Japan’s newspaper unions reacted furiously, calling the tactic “intimidation” of women and the media.

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“This involved a corporate journalist,” Nakatsuka says, a reference to the bifurcated world of full-time media workers and the vast pool of part-timers and contract workers that prop up the industry. Many full-time female employees began to worry whether their employers would protect them if they faced the same problem, she says. “It felt too close to home.”

A dossier full of stories compiled by WiMN in May revealed two decades of harassment. All were anonymous, suggesting they feared that breaking the code of silence would harm their careers. In some cases their harassers have risen to positions of considerable authority.

One woman, a print reporter in her forties, wrote that a police chief had threatened to bar her from press conferences after she refused his advances. Another described an attempted rape by a senior colleague, who later pushed to transfer her. Many recalled uncomfortable, sometimes frightening encounters with bureaucrats, cops, and lawmakers. “In 20 years as a reporter I encountered countless cases of harassment and have never spoken to anyone,” said one.

The accounts were announced at a presser in Kasumigaseki, Japan’s government district, on May 14. The women demanded accountability for the Fukuda scandal, and called for an end to harassment in the country. NHK, the country’s most powerful broadcaster, was among the outlets that reported their stories.

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The Asahi apologized for its treatment of their reporter. Print and broadcast media industry bodies have called sexual harassment “an act of human rights violation” and “a grave issue that affects people’s right to know,” and promised to firmly respond. Some media companies have introduced anti-harassment training. They have passed resolutions promising to monitor whether reporters face intimidation during interviews. (The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association issued a statement on June 20, while the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association on June 25.) And a campaign is afoot to create a law banning sexual harassment.

The government appears to have been surprised by the backlash from the Fukuda scandal. Aso has made a grudging apology, though he remains in his job. Bureaucrats from the Finance Ministry have been ordered to take a training course on sexual harassment. A priceless picture was later released, showing a room full of stone-faced, mostly male bureaucrats being lectured on inappropriate conduct toward women by a woman lawyer; the minister himself did not attend.

Female media workers have since met Seiko Noda, the minister in charge of both women’s empowerment and gender equality—the possible prelude to a bill that may finally outlaw sexual harassment. Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, hardly a feminist, has publicly urged Noda to end sexual harassment in the workplace.

Still, there is a long way to go. Depriving female reporters of equal access to information and failing to protect them as whistleblowers is a threat to press freedom, says Mami Nakano, a Tokyo lawyer. “Rather than trying to protect herself, the TV Asahi reporter was serving the public’s right to know.” In a withering report last year, the UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye cited a lack of solidarity among journalists in Japan, which left them vulnerable to attacks from employers and the authorities. Banding together helped guarantee media freedom and independence, he said. The importance of the WiMN movement is that it expresses rare cross-industry support for fellow journalists, and for women. “This is not just a matter of the media industry,” said Noda at the press conference. The aim, say the women of WiMN, is to change society.

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Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify that the training course on sexual harassment came before WiMN’s demands, and that the meeting with Noda may not necessarily lead to a bill.

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David McNeill and Chie Matsumoto are the authors of this article. David McNeill writes for The Irish Times and The Economist and teaches media literacy and journalism at Sophia University in Tokyo. Chie Matsumoto is a freelance journalist and lecturer at Hosei University. She was formerly a full-time reporter at the Asahi newspaper.