Japan journalist awarded US$30,000 damages in #MeToo rape case

Ito hopes her case will change the legal and social landscape surrounding rape in Japan. (AP pic)

TOKYO: A Tokyo court Wednesday awarded 3.3 million yen (US$30,000) in damages to journalist Shiori Ito, who accused a former TV reporter of rape in one of the most high-profile cases of the #MeToo movement in Japan.

The civil case made headlines in Japan and abroad, as it is rare for rape victims to report the crime to the police – according to a 2017 government survey, only 4% of women come forward.

Ito, 30, has become an outspoken symbol for #MeToo in Japan, where the movement against sexual harassment and abuse has struggled to take hold.

She had sought 11 million yen (US$100,000) in compensation from Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former TV reporter with close links to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, alleging he raped her after inviting her to dinner to discuss a job opportunity in 2015.

Yamaguchi continues to deny any wrongdoing and had filed a counter-suit against Ito, seeking 130 million yen in compensation.

“We won. The counter-suit was turned down,” said Ito outside the court, holding up a banner that read “victory” as supporters cheered and clapped.

“Honestly I still don’t know how I feel,” she told reporters, struggling to hold back the tears.

“However, winning this case doesn’t mean this (sexual assault) didn’t happen … this is not the end,” she added.

She said she hoped the case would change what she called the “underdeveloped” legal and social environment surrounding rape in Japan.

Japan hiked minimum jail terms for rapists from three to five years and widened the definition of sexual assault victims to include men for the first time in 2017.

Lawmakers decided unanimously to update the 1907 statute to impose tougher penalties on sex attackers and make prosecutions easier, as they look to boost Japan’s low number of convictions.

The latest World Economic Forum report on the gender gap published on the eve of the case ranked Japan 121st out of 153 countries, slipping even further down the list from 110th the previous year.

Yamaguchi announced he would appeal “immediately” against the ruling, saying: “I have not done anything that goes against the law.”

He claimed the court had failed to acknowledge inconsistencies and “falsehoods” in Ito’s argument while ignoring his own arguments.

He said the significant international media attention around the case might have clouded the judgement of the court and vowed to be more vocal in future.

‘It wasn’t only me!’

Ito spoke out in 2017, shortly before the #MeToo movement, and this was “viewed as odd, especially in Japan”, she said.

When the #MeToo movement emerged, “I thought ‘It wasn’t only me!’ and I believe there were others who thought so too”, she said.

But things in Japan moved slowly.

“I saw women in Europe or the United States actively discussing it and standing up together but I didn’t think that happened in Japan at the same time,” she said.

Ito said that a major problem in Japanese media is the high proportion of men in decision-making positions but she added that the situation has begun to change with overseas harassment stories appearing in Japan and her story being told overseas.

Ito suspects her alleged attacker drugged her and claims police failed to test for substances.

“When I regained consciousness, in intense pain, I was in a hotel room and he was on top of me. I knew what had happened but I couldn’t process it.”

The court said in its written ruling that she was “forced to have sex without contraception, while in a state of unconsciousness and severe inebriation”.

“We acknowledge that the plaintiff continues to suffer from flashbacks and panic attacks until now,” said the court.

The police, who took weeks to open a criminal investigation, told Ito they were going to arrest Yamaguchi, she said – before they suddenly backed off.