In this picture taken on April 16, 2018 Japan's Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda leaves the finance ministry in Tokyo. (JIJI PRESS / AFP)
TOKYO - Japanese women, long accustomed to enduring sexual harassment in silence, are speaking out after a high-profile scandal involving a top bureaucrat stirred debate and protests.
In interviews with Reuters, six prominent women said they hoped Japan was at a turning point in attitudes towards harassment, but urged steps to shrink social, political and economic gender gaps to get at the root causes of the problem.
Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda resigned in April after accusations that he had sexually harassed a female reporter. Fukuda denied the allegations, and no lawsuits were filed, but the finance ministry later acknowledged the harassment and docked 20 percent of his pay for six months.
Fukuda could not be reached for comment on this article.
In the month since, harassment has remained a hot-button issue. Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, who holds the portfolio for women's empowerment in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet, told Reuters she planned to introduce steps soon to address the problem.
"I think women have put up with sexual harassment thinking it was inevitable while men thought it was OK," she said.
"In my case ... it was a matter of the power relationship between myself and middle-aged or elderly men drinking until 8 or 9 at night," said Noda, 57, recalling her experience as a30-year-old candidate. "Comments like, 'If you want a vote, let me touch your breasts,' were a daily occurrence."
Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda delivers a speech during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Aug 3, 2017. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP)
Public attention to the topic in the wake of the Fukuda scandal, however, is helping change attitudes.
"A #MeToo movement of speaking out has begun," said opposition lawmaker and former gender equality minister Mizuho Fukushima, referring to the global movement to share accounts of sexual harassment or assault. "What was kept private has become visible."
Lawyers, activists and many women who have suffered sexual harassment in Japan say victims have long been reluctant to speak out for fear of being blamed.
That was what freelancer Shiori Ito said happened to her when she went public last year with allegations of rape by well-known journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi has denied the allegations and was not charged.
In Japan, prosecutors by custom do not explain decisions to the public. A judicial panel rejected Ito's appeal, saying it had found no grounds to overturn the prosecutors' decision.
"I have been saying that there was no crime and in fact, there was no crime," Yamaguchi told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Ito, who worked as an intern for Reuters during the time she says the rape occurred, is seeking compensation from Yamaguchi in a civil suit.
"Talking about rape and sexual harassment is taboo and some people think that if you talk about it ... you will be seen as a tarnished person," Ito said. She added, though, that things might be changing for the better.
Well-known news anchor Yuko Ando echoed that view, noting that the reaction to the allegation against Fukuda gave her hope.
"Those in Japan who have shut out their memories of sexual harassment are likely to speak out. Because such memories never disappear," Ando said.
Opposition lawmaker Renho said one challenge was to ensure victims in lower-profile cases are heard and protected.
One of the reporters who accused Fukuda, a top bureaucrat, worked for broadcaster TV Asahi. Neither she nor her employer identified her.
"If it were a female reporter working part-time for a local station or those involved were not in the public eye, I wonder if their voices would be heard," said Renho, who goes by her first name.
After the TV Asahi reporter told her story of being verbally harassed to a weekly magazine, TV Asahi protested to the finance ministry, which ultimately apologized.
“This sort of action is unacceptable since it damages the dignity and human rights of the victim,” Deputy Vice Finance Minister Koji Yano told a news conference last month.
TV Asahi demanded that the ministry continue its investigation and that Fukuda apologize in person. The broadcaster told Reuters it had received no further reply from the ministry.
The reporter could not be reached for comment. In a statement issued on her behalf by TV Asahi last month, the reporter, who was not identified, said that she regretted that Fukuda had not admitted to the allegations and added that she hoped it would become easier for victims to take action.
"I pray for a society in which all people’s dignity is respected," she said in the statement.
Cabinet minister Noda, who plans to challenge Abe for leadership of his ruling party, called for a law to strengthen protection for sexual harassment victims.
Ultimately, however, resolving the problem requires narrowing social and economic gender inequality, some women said.
"The hotbed of sexual harassment won't go away unless asymmetry between power held by men and women at the workplace is resolved," said Chizuko Ueno, director of the non-profit Women's Action Network and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo.