Last year, in a strikingly rare case, Shiori Ito (29) publicly accused a prominent journalist of drugging and raping her. The muted response to her moving story and a significant backlash on social media forced her to relocate. But, Ito, who now works as a journalist in London, is still credited with enabling conversations about sexual assault back home.
As India reckons with an outpouring of sexual misconduct cases, Ito spoke to The Indian Express at the Third Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in Seoul in October about her experience of going public with her story. Edited excerpts:
India’s MeToo storm
I really admire what is happening in India. The horrible incident of 2012 (Delhi gangrape), I think, contributed to a lot of change. Women in Japan do not come out (for a cause) the way Indian women do. Social activism is not popular in Japan. In fact, one of the biggest protests we had recently was when our Prime Minister attempted to change the Article 9 of our Constitution (which bans maintenance of armed forces). When it comes to gender discrimination and sexual violence, I feel there are amazing things happening in your country. Japan needs more women to come out on the streets like in the US and India. That’s something we are missing.
Decision to speak out
Japan is one of the world’s most organised countries and yet when it comes to sexual assault, there’s literally no support (for the victims). Because this topic (conversations about rape) was so taboo, I realised that (speaking out) was the only way (to break the silence). I remember my sister kept asking me ‘why does it have to be you’. My father didn’t want me to talk about it. My family was scared of what could happen afterwards because the man I accused was popular. But someone had to do it. I’m so glad the MeToo movement happened shortly after I spoke up as it helped my family understand that I was not the only one speaking out.
On leaving Japan
It was difficult to work there after I went public with my story. I received threats and so did my family. There was even a rumour that I am a honeytrap and that people should be wary of being interviewed by me. Those who I had interviewed in the past stopped responding to my requests. Also, just walking down the street became so difficult. I was scared. Some women rights group suggested that I should consider moving (to another country) to talk more freely about what’s going on in Japan. So I moved to London.
Change in Japan’s rape law
Japan recently amended its rape law after 110 years, but it’s not enough. Earlier, being convicted under the sex crimes law meant you served less time in jail than someone convicted of burglary. They have now changed the jail sentence – from three to five years — and expanded the definition of rape to include oral and anal sex. However, the age of consent still remains 13 years. In India it is 18 (years). There’s no education about consent in our country. You cannot assume that at the age of 13 years, you’ll know what consent is without being educated about it. That apart, it’s still really difficult to prove lack of consent. So next time when they change the law again, they have to define consent. That only yes means yes. If they do that, it will encourage more women to come out.
Also, our Parliament didn’t debate the changes enough before amending the law. It happened on the last day of the session. I received an email from the Chairman of the Parliament, thanking me for speaking out, but they should have at least taken more than a day to talk about the changes they were going to make to a law after 110 years.
Sexual harassment at the workplace in Japan
Japan doesn’t have a law for sexual harassment at the workplace and we need one. In fact our deputy finance minister very recently said that sexual harassment is not a crime (he later apologised for this statement). When one of Japan’s biggest newspapers did a survey on whether women in the country are keen on saying ‘Me Too’, a majority of them said yes. But a large number also said they can’t really do it because they are afraid of the repercussions. Since there is no law against sexual harassment, what does a victim do after outing her harasser? Of course, you can encourage women to say ‘Me Too’, but what after that?