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Raise Your Voice – Shiori Ito joins TUJ students to discuss Japan’s sexual assault stigma

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by Keili Hamilton-Maureira (junior Communications Studies major)

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Shiori Ito, freelance journalist and author of “Black Box

Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) organized a series of events in observation of both Women’s History Month in March and Sexual Assault Awareness month in April. The events, fitting this year’s theme of “Raise Your Voice,” included “Wikipedia Edit-a-thon” on March 8, where attendees gathered to contribute edits to Wikipedia entries related to art and feminism, and a TUJ ICAS lecture on March 29 which featured three speakers discussing sex crimes and the criminal justice system in Japan. The final event for the month, held in The Parliament Student Lounge on April 9, welcomed Shiori Ito, freelance journalist and author of Black Box. The event was held for TUJ students only.

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CAO Alistair Howard

Our Shared Future

The event, “A Conversation with Shiori Ito, the author of Black Box,” started with an opening speech by TUJ’s Chief Academic Officer Alistair Howard. He provided a personal anecdote about his daughter, who arrived at TUJ last year as a study abroad student, recalling how she had once commented on the lack of available practical information related to on or off-campus sexual assault. “She was right,” he asserted, acknowledging the efforts made by TUJ students involved with the online magazine UPRIZINE to increase the school’s transparency and improve available resources in recent years, so that “TUJ campus services are now more visible.” In contrast with the United States’ prominence of public sexual assault allegations and discussions, the issue of sexual assault is generally avoided in Japan. TUJ’s multinational student body creates opportunities for open discussions, education and positive social change. “We’re learning as we’re coping,” Howard stated, “This issue is local and global… it’s about our shared future.” As he concluded his speech, he introduced the event’s moderator, Andrea Seiss, Temple University Main Campus’ Title IX Coordinator, who flew from Philadelphia to host and contribute to TUJ events related to sexual assault awareness.

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Breaking the Silence

As Shiori Ito was introduced, she stepped from behind the podium and stood in front of it. “I feel like this is a barrier between us,” she remarked. She opened the conversation by affirming that she has had apprehensions about speaking out publicly on these difficult and polarizing issues, but is motivated by the thought of her little sister, who is university age much like the TUJ event audience. “What if this happened to her?” She described the lack of resources, extending the context to Japanese society as a whole, citing personal experiences with Japanese police, hospitals, as well as its only Rape Crisis Center, all of which were lacking in support according to Ito. She commented on the prominence of sexual assault in Japan, or lack thereof, sex crimes being severely underreported. “I was always told that this is the safest country in Asia and in the world,” she explained, which resonated with the crowd of students. Many travelling to Japan either for study, work or tourism, including TUJ’s own students, are comforted by the idea that Japan is very safe. Japan generally boasts low crime rates. The Japan Times reported in 2014 that murders and attempted murders had dropped 8.8 percent from 2012 to 2013 to a postwar record of 939, according to records by the National Police Agency. However, sexual assault reportedly increased by 13.7 percent, even while being under-reported. Ito expressed hopes that more resources will become available to survivors in Japan by 2020, as the Japanese government continues to work with the Gender Equality Bureau to allocate more of a budget to the development of these types of resources. Until then, the issue of sexual assault continues to be little discussed in Japanese society, explaining the modest media coverage of Ito’s public rape allegations last year against the Washington bureau chief of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). “If I couldn’t tell the truth, I couldn’t be a journalist,” Ito stated, “it would twist me up inside.”

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Coming Forward

Why is it hard to investigate sexual assault in Japan? Ito attempted to explain. “I’m realizing how behind our justice and legal systems are in Japan.” Citing her own experience navigating the legal road following her allegations, Ito explained that Japanese police can present an intimidating atmosphere for survivors wishing to report sex crimes, a step which for many may find embarrassing or humiliating, potentially preventing survivors from seeking support or legal action. Ito described how she was referred to person after person by the police, female to male, ward to ward, to relive and retell her story, until a formal investigation was launched. Even though Ito finally obtained an arrest warrant for the accused using compelling evidence, the warrant was apparently cancelled at the last minute. “To this day I don’t know what happened,” Ito expressed with some frustration. While she never received any enlightening information regarding the cancellation, what was revealed was further confirmation of the struggles of other survivors in Japanese society seeking to investigate sex crimes. Ito talked about other survivors, who described the Japanese investigative system of sex crime re-enactment, which many of the survivors painfully recollected as “second rape” — being made to relive their experience in a detailed, photographed re-enactment. This, among many other factors, Ito listed as a reason that sexual assault goes under-reported and un-investigated in Japan, “This is why they’re afraid to come forward.” Still, she expressed hope for change. In 2017, the Diet approved a bill which would widen the definition of rape to include male victims, among other changes – the first changes to rape laws in Japan in 110 years. Last year’s changes, Ito said, provided hope that some things really can change.

The Key to Change

Ito emphasized one aspect of Japan’s stigma around sexual assault which she believes is vital to achieving change – language. “We’re not talking about consent,” she stated, going on to explain that Japan’s age of consent is 13, and that the importance of consent is underrepresented in Japan. Ito cited a Japanese saying that embodies the level of importance put on consent by Japanese society, “Iya yo iya yo mo suki no uchi,” essentially “no means yes.” Ito also expressed that she feels the #MeToo movement in the United States doesn’t quite fit language-wise in Japanese society in that it implies individual action. “It’s too much to ask,” she said, explaining that in Japan people may be hesitant to speak out for fear of ostracism. Ito herself has been living away from Japan (in London) since her allegations went public. This is what drove her to start the #WeToo movement, a platform for communication to aid in changing the minds of people in Japanese society and open up conversations about sexual assault and rape. “It has to be we-us,” she said, hoping that this movement will change the public face of the issue in Japan and encourage survivors to speak up. She spoke about how Japanese media treats the taboo issue with subtle language, using words like “violated” or “tricked” rather than “raped.”

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The event concluded with a Q&A segment. Students asked a variety of questions directly to Shiori Ito. Ito responded to each question with care, addressing complex issues and ideas. Some students questioned the effectiveness of a foreigner in Japan with a limited Japanese speaking ability’s contribution to the stigma. Ito connected this with the backlash she faced after her public allegations, many criticisms marking her as “un-Japanese” or foreign for speaking out, to which she responded, “we care about Japanese society, that’s why we want to make a change.” At one point during the Q&A, Ito asked students to raise their hands if they felt comfortable speaking with family or friends about the issue of sexual assault – the majority of the room raised their hands. This gave both Ito and the students hope that change is on the horizon, and implied the effect outside perspectives can have on communication about these divisive issues. Ito concluded, “I hope one day you don’t have to say that this is a difficult conversation.”

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<student writer> Keili Hamilton-Maureira

Keili is a Junior Communications Studies major at Temple University, Japan Campus. When she is not writing or working, she can usually be found watching reruns of American talk shows or telling her husband to stand still while she draws him.

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