A Japanese court ruling in favor of a freelance journalist who publicly accused a high-profile broadcaster of raping her has been hailed as a victory by human rights campaigners – but they say the country still has a long way to go on fighting sexual assault.
Shiori Ito became a symbol of Japan’s #MeToo movement after she alleged that former Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi raped her in 2015 after he invited her out for dinner.
On Wednesday, a Tokyo District Court judge ordered Yamaguchi, 53, to pay 3.3 million yen ($30,000) in damages to Ito, and concluded that she had not consented to the act.
“I really believe this was a landmark case for Japanese sex crime,” Ito said at a news conference on Thursday. “I’m still quite surprised today that we had such a positive result.”
Ito shocked Japan in 2017 by going public with her accusations – an unusual move in a country where it is estimated that more than 95% of sexual assault victims never report their rape to police, according to a 2017 survey by the cabinet office of Japan’s central government.
Even if women do go on the record, they may face other hurdles, including police attempting to discourage them from reporting the crime.
Given that, it’s not uncommon for Japanese women to pursue civil cases, but many settle out of court, said Kazuko Ito, a lawyer and the secretary general of Japanese NGO Human Rights Now, who is not related to Shiori Ito. Ito’s case is significant as she went to trial – and won, Kazuko Ito told CNN.
But while Shiori Ito considers Wednesday’s decision a “win,” her case has also highlighted problems with how Japan’s justice system deals with rape – and reignited calls for change.
For a start, Ito’s alleged rapist will walk free. Yamaguchi was not charged with Ito’s rape, and has repeatedly said he is innocent. Ito pursued the civil case for compensation after a criminal case against Yamaguchi was dropped by police.
On Wednesday, the Tokyo District Court judge also dismissed Yamaguchi’s counter appeal for 130 million yen in damages to his reputation and invasion of privacy. He has said he plans to appeal soon.
Despite the ruling in Ito’s favor, Kazuko Ito said the compensation was “insufficient.” She also called for an overhaul of Japan’s rape laws.
“For her, it’s a victory,” Kazuko Ito said. “Because of the limitations of the Japanese legal system, he was not convicted, and the amount of compensation is very little … And we really need to reform this kind of system.”
Problems with the police force
Five days after she was allegedly raped by Yamaguchi, Shiori Ito reported her case to the police, she said at the news conference on Thursday.
During the investigation, Ito says police made her reenact the alleged rape in front of several officers using dolls, an experience she described as “really traumatizing.” They also told her to maintain contact with Yamaguchi so they could track his whereabouts, Ito said.
According to Tomoe Yatagawa, an expert in law and gender at Tokyo’s Waseda University, reenacting a case with dolls is common in Japanese investigations. Yatagawa said that, although Japanese investigators believe it is a good way to collect evidence, it was a “second rape” – a term that refers to victims being traumatized again.
Ultimately, the authorities did not prosecute Yamaguchi – and Ito said she still had questions over that decision. The prosecutor’s office told CNN last year that they could not comment on individual cases.
How Japan’s legal system deals with rape
The problems with the way Japan’s justice system deals with rape go far beyond the police.
In 2017, the country updated its rape laws for the first time in over a century, increasing the minimum sentence for rape to five years. Under Japanese law, the prosecutor must be able to prove that the sexual assault was a result of force or violence, and the law makes no mention of consent.c
On Thursday, Kazuko Ito from Human Rights Now said that the sexual assault laws needed to be amended to remove the element of physical force.
When Japan updated its laws in 2017, parliament called for a review after three years, Reuters reported in June.
At Thursday’s news conference, Shiori Ito also hit out at the current laws, saying they required the survivor to prove the rape, and how much they had been threatened.
She noted that the judge had decided that she hadn’t consented to the act – but that wouldn’t be enough to constitute rape under the law. “I would like to highlight this point: nonconsensual sex is rape,” Shiori Ito said.
Even before Wednesday’s decision, there have been calls this year to change the country’s laws after a string of not guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases, according to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.
But while there is a groundswell of support for tougher rape laws, Shiori Ito has also come under fire after going public about her alleged assault.
She received threats, a backlash on social media and was left fearing for her and her family’s safety. At a separate news conference on Thursday, Yamaguchi called her a “habitual liar.”
He said Ito was “very drunk” when he decided to take her back to his hotel, and vomited multiple times, including on her blouse, then went to sleep for two hours before they had sex.
Kazuko Ito said it was important for the public to be educated about issues of consent.
“If you know a person gets drunk, you shouldn’t (have sex). It’s involuntary sex – it’s rape,” she said. “I want to emphasize how difficult (it was) for her to fight under this Japanese sentiment. We need to change the society – this is the lesson for us.”
Legal expert Yatagawa said she respected Shiori Ito’s bravery, and thought her case would encourage other victims to come forward. But there were many legal changes that still needed to happen.
“I don’t think her case can change Japanese justice system of rape at once,” she said.