Woman’s fight highlights rape taboo in Japan
Tokyo Letter: Proving rape is very difficult here but one victim, Shiori Ito, is undeterred
Japanese journalist Shiori Ito, who accused a television newsman of raping her in 2015, seen here in January of this year, in Tokyo. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
One balmy evening three years ago, Shiori Ito went for a sushi dinner with a man she thought might help her budding career as a journalist. Hours later she says she awoke in an upscale Tokyo hotel to find the man lying on top of her. She pushed him off and ran to the bathroom where she realised she had been raped.
“Everywhere was hurting,” she recalls. When she went back to the bedroom, she says the man tried to rape her again and she fled. Alone at home, she barely had the strength to get out of bed. Friends told her to move on with her life. It was five days before she went to a police station where another kind of assault began.
She asked for a female officer and tearfully recounted the incident. “After two hours she said, ‘Well, I’m from the traffic department, you need to speak to an investigator.’ She retold her entire story to a policeman who said she was at the wrong place and needed to file a complaint closer to where the alleged assault occurred.
So she found herself explaining what happened to another male officer, who paused sympathetically before telling her to forget about it; there was no evidence for Ito’s claim that she had been drugged before the alleged rape. “He said: ‘These things happen a lot and there is no way to prove it. Your life will be ruined.’”
Rape statistics in Japan are among the lowest in the developed world though they are almost certainly an underestimate. Victims of sexual assault are even less likely to tell the police than elsewhere: fewer than 5 per cent of Japanese women officially report rape, according to the government. Ito’s experience suggests why.
By insisting on a police investigation, she was forced to endure a ritual in the careful marshalling of evidence: reliving the alleged rape as male officers looked on. A life-sized doll resembling a crash-test dummy was placed on top of her as she wriggled underneath, being photographed. “That was the most humiliating part of all,” she says.
Her persistence paid off. A sympathetic policeman watched footage at the hotel, which showed her being carried across the lobby. A taxi driver testified to Ito’s groggy pleas to be dropped off at a train station. The hotel bellman recalled her alleged rapist struggling for three minutes to get the unconscious Ito out of the taxi.
Police issued an arrest warrant for quasi-rape (where consent is impossible) against Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a senior broadcast journalist (he denies the claim). To Ito’s astonishment, however, investigators waiting to serve the warrant to Yamaguchi at the airport were ordered to let him go. The case was transferred to a different police branch and eventually dropped by prosecutors.
That startling denouement had the whiff of political conspiracy. Yamaguchi is the author of two soft-focus books about prime minister Shinzo Abe. Yet, Ito says she has no interest in revenge against him or the government. “Everyone wants to take me to a place where I am fighting against Abe; I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t even care about Yamaguchi. I do care that the justice system works.”
The difficulty of proving rape and the wide discretionary powers of Japanese prosecutors mean that rape cases rarely make it to court. Many conclude with “suspended prosecution”, meaning guilt is assumed but the perpetrator is not charged, often in return for financial compensation. Ito was offered money to drop her claim. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
Since going public with her experience three years ago, Ito says she has endured relentless online abuse. She was accused of inviting the assault, and of setting a honey trap to destroy her alleged attacker or even to unseat Abe. Her family name was revealed, despite her pledge to protect them from the glare. She now lives in London.
A BBC documentary aired this month has reignited the “slut shaming”. The documentary has infuriated Japanese cybernationalists, who say it gives a misleading picture of sexual assault in Japan. A female politician in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party appeared to blame Ito for her alleged assault. “There were clear errors on her part as a woman; drinking that much in front of a man and losing her memory,” said Mio Sugita, who added. “With things like this I think men are the ones who suffer significant damage.”
Undeterred, Ito has launched a civil suit against Yamaguchi in an attempt to air the alleged assault in an open court. Her persistence is startlingly rare but as journalist, she says, she has no choice. If she cannot face the truth of what had happened to her, how could she continue?
Whatever her attacker did to her, she says, it could never be worse than the psychological damage of running from herself.