By Christian Wolfer
On May 30th, I went to panel in front of over 200 people at the Aoyama Gakuin University at an event hosted by TELL.
The topic was sexual harassment in Japan and why there has been little change as of yet. Being a white male working in organizational development, I aimed to leverage my differences by sharing how I look at this topic. The other excellent panelists were three women, also with very different backgrounds: Kyoko Sonoda, a psychotherapist at TELL, Miwako Dias, co-founder of the Tokyo Women’s Film Festival, and Ria Scott, a pre-school teacher and leader of a business meetup in Tokyo. All of them had their own share of personal experiences and their different professional backgrounds provided different framings of the issue.
First, we watched a one-hour documentary made by BBC (notably not a Japanese production) about Shiori Ito and her story of (currently alleged) rape.
Having read the New York Times article by Motoko Rich (also in the documentary), a lot of information overlaps, but seeing the reaction of Miss Ito makes it hard to ignore the agony this experience has caused her. Interviews have also been conducted by people who do not support her, displaying the outdated mindset concerning sexual harassment.
Furthermore, Miss Ito also visited institutions, such as centers for sexually abused women, which exposed a shocking lack of facilities and equipment. In short, it portrayed clearly that sexual harassment is not high on the agenda of the Japanese government.
After the documentary, the audience would write down questions to us, and the TELL team chose the most exciting ones that we panelists were free to answer at our discretion.
One recurring theme was what each individual can do in their private or professional life. My take was that very often, especially at work, before someone commits rape, there are many steps that precede this crime. Actions like touching someone’s hair without consent or making continuous remarks about someone’s looks. Rape is often the end of a ladder someone starts climbing, a ladder held together by one’s beliefs towards women, ignorance, AND the inaction of bystanders. Actions can be taken to not let anyone reach the end of this ladder.
Some of these include:
– Having clear channels of communication at work, such as an elected committee taking care of these concerns.
– Provide training, share your thoughts and don’t assume others are evil or “everyone knows that”. If someone makes a sexist joke, don’t just smile and join the fun, be respectful but firm in saying that this is not appropriate.
– Create psychological safety at work. If people don’t feel safe talking about their troubles at work out of fear to be punished or ridiculed, you bet they won’t feel comfortable talking about sexual harassment.
– Break hierarchy. Generally speaking, people in lower positions of power are less likely to speak up. So empower everyone and aim for a flatter hierarchical style.
– Forget about “Gaman” and “Shikata ga nai”. To some degree those are precious cultural values, but in these circumstances counter-productive.
So, next time you hear “Well, that’s just how (insert name) is.” or “Boys will be boys.”, don’t just nod but be alarmed, find out what happened and hold people accountable for their actions.
Learn more about “Japan’s secret shame” documentary + trailer:
Motoko Rich’s coverage on the case:
Tell is a not-for-profit mental health support and counseling organization for the international community in Japan. They also regularly organize events and put their efforts into educating about mental health and ending its stigma.
Further tips on how to handle sexual harassment: