In Japan and South Korea, sexual harassment is endemic, but it looks like #MeToo has finally arrived.
South Korea is tackling the sexual harassment that is endemic in professional life, where after-work drinking with bosses has been standard practice for decades.
Prominent politicians, professors, film directors and a renowned poet have all faced a public reckoning for their actions. One presidential hopeful who styled himself as “South Korea’s Obama” has been charged with raping his secretary.
Some companies are now adopting a “119” rule – named after South Korea’s emergency phone number – limiting staff to one kind of alcohol (no “bomb shots” of beer and rice liquor) at one venue (no restaurant-bar-karaoke-room-hopping) and a 9pm curfew.
Here in Japan, several powerful men have also been called to account. That in itself is progress, but the results have been much more mixed than in South Korea. For one, it has laid bare a culture of victim-shaming in a country where it’s not the done thing to create a scene and disrupt the “harmony” of society.
As in South Korea, post-work socialising with bosses and colleagues is standard in Japan’s corporate and government environment – and is often mandatory. The US State Department, America’s equivalent of a foreign affairs ministry, noted in its latest human rights report that sexual harassment in the workplace was “widespread” in Japan.
A government survey conducted before the #MeToo eruption found that almost a third of Japanese women said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, but almost two-thirds did nothing about it. So it seemed like a step in the right direction when the Finance Ministry’s most senior bureaucrat was forced out of his job after a reporter for Asahi Television, one of Japan’s biggest channels, accused him of harassing her and had the audio tapes to back it up.
But what happened next was ugly. The Finance Minister, Taro Aso, said he was worried about the ousted official’s “human rights” and alleged a “smear campaign” against him. Others wondered aloud about “honey traps” setting up innocent men. One veteran lawmaker suggested that the reporter herself had committed a crime in levelling the accusations against the bureaucrat.
Even Asahi criticised the reporter for taking her complaints to another media outlet, though that was a step she took only after her superiors declined to do anything about the official asking to touch her breasts and have an affair with her.
The path may not be straight, but it’s at least going in the right direction. Women have protested outside the Finance Ministry, some holding up signs saying “Me Too” or “With You”.
More women have begun telling their stories to local media, with tangible results. A 46-year-old musician and television personality who admitted forcibly kissing a high-school student made a tearful apology and financial settlement, and was this month ejected from his well-known pop group.
More stories will doubtless emerge. But the kind of seismic shift that has happened in the US and, to a lesser extent, South Korea is still a long way off.
“The dinosaurs are dying out,” Noriko Hama, a professor at Doshisha University in Japan, told the South China Morning Post. “We just need a meteorite or two to get rid of those who are too stuck in their ways to change.”
Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.
This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.