Making sexual harassment unacceptable in Asia will require huge cultural shifts.
In the UK, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned and dozens of politicians have been accused of sexual harassment. Even in France, women have been using the phrase “balance ton porc”, or “squeal on your pig”, to speak out.
But in northern Asia, the movement has gained little traction. In these patriarchal – bordering on misogynistic – societies, sexual harassment by men with power over younger women is rife. Yet it’s seldom discussed, even in the current environment.
The state-run China Daily, the country’s flagship English-language newspaper, even had the temerity to claim that sexual harassment was a Western problem.
“Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women,” a column in the paper claimed. “Behaving inappropriately towards women, including harassing them sexually, contradicts every Chinese traditional value and custom.”
Not surprisingly, there was an outcry on social media, with women telling their stories and pointing to surveys such as one from 2015 that found more than 30% of college students had been sexually harassed. The paper withdrew the column.
In South Korea and Japan, where there’s a cultural expectation that office workers regularly drink with co-workers and bosses, women have also taken to social media to recount their experiences.
The big difference here is the way sexual harassment is treated. It is considered shameful to talk about it – the stigma is attached to the woman – and those brave enough to tell their stories are often blamed for what happened.
Take a recent Japanese case. Journalist Shiori Ito publicly levelled accusations of rape against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s close friend and biographer after her complaints to the police went nowhere, leading to suspicions of a political cover-up.
The accusations caused shock – that a woman would have the audacity to speak about a sexual assault and also name her alleged perpetrator.
The idea that the woman must have been, in some way, “asking for it” is pervasive here.
Japan’s news broadcaster NHK asked men what they thought constituted “sexual consent”. Almost a quarter said that if a woman was wearing skimpy clothes, she was consenting, and more than a third said a woman who got drunk was agreeing to sex, the Daily Beast reported.
It’s a similar situation in South Korea, where the Education Ministry’s curriculum guidelines for high-school sex education say that if a man spends a lot of money on dates, “it is natural that he would want a commensurate compensation from the woman”. The ministry also tells girls that if they’re sexually harassed on the subway, they should step on the man’s foot “as if by mistake”, according to the Korea Herald.
So, what would it take to change the culture in this part of the world?
Some Japanese women have been tweeting to ask if this global “Me too” movement could lead to more accountability. In South Korea, the movement has struck a chord two years after a woman was murdered in a public toilet by a man who complained he was always ignored by the opposite sex.
But making sexual harassment, rather than the reporting of it, socially unacceptable will require huge cultural shifts. Japan and South Korea are among the least-advanced nations in the gender-equality stakes. Here’s hoping women in Asia will be able to speak up the same way women in the West are now.
New Zealander Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.
This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.