By Kohei Usuda
Last February, Ikuko Ishida filed a civil lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court against the city of Sapporo and her former teacher, seeking damages for severe psychological trauma. She claims it’s the result of years of sexual abuse she endured as a schoolgirl. Now, decades after the agony, she’s asking for justice.
For Ikuko Ishida, the ordeal began on the day before her junior high school graduation ceremony. On that snowy below-freezing day in the middle of March, more than two decades ago, young Ikuko, then a student in the northern city of Sapporo, Hokkaido, had been invited by one of her schoolteachers to accompany him to Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, to view an exhibition there.
According to her, when she complained about menstrual cramps once they were in the museum, the teacher drove her to his home so that she can get some rest. Upon arrival, he told Ikuko that he had always had a liking for her, and, to her surprise, proceeded to kiss her. Taken aback, she became tearful and started breathing rapidly, whereupon he made her sit down on the couch. Once she had calmed down, he positioned her on the floor and laid on top of her.
Following that episode, as often as once or twice a month, the teacher would summon Ikuko – at the time a 15-year-old minor – for excursions such as going hiking in nearby Otaru or a drive up to Ishikari Bay, where he would engage in sexual abuse, she claimed. This pattern of sexual exploitation, she now alleges, persisted for more than four years from 1993 to 1997, lasting through her high school years and well into her freshman year at Hokkaido University.
“I had no clue”
Up until junior high, young Ikuko was, by all accounts, a picture of an active and cheerful girl. Blessed with a happy disposition, she was elected president of the student council and served as captain of the school’s softball team. But that all changed. Coinciding with that spring of 1993, her confidence gradually chipped away. Her personality underwent a drastic transformation during a formative and impressionable period that makes or breaks a young girl’s sense of self. She mostly kept to herself and made few friends once she progressed to high school, devoting almost exclusively to studies as a “coping mechanism,” she now recalls.
“At the time, I didn’t know what it was like to be in love, nor had I ever engaged in anything sexual,” Ishida, now 42, recounted in an interview. “So I had no clue [about any of these things]. And as a teacher, he was someone that I had placed my blind trust in.” Ishida explained that, back when her ordeal began, she was simply too young and inexperienced to suspect his motive to be anything untoward, analyzing: “I was under the spell of his psychological manipulation.”
Why did she remain silent and let the violation go on for so long? For that, Ishida has a simple answer. She explained that she was deceived into believing that their relationship – however lopsided it was – was “purely a romance based on love.” Nevertheless, that did not preclude her from harboring some misgivings, nagging doubts that something was amiss: she was never entirely convinced by the abrupt manner in which the teacher entered her life, only to hold sway over her.
According to Ishida, it wasn’t until well into her adulthood that her misgivings were proven to be well placed. It so happened that, one summer in Tokyo, Ishida surreptitiously sat through a court hearing involving a criminal case that had alarming similarities to what she herself had gone through during her own adolescence in Sapporo.
In that trial, a man in a position of authority – a social worker in his 20s – was alleged to have sexually exploited a 16-year-old girl under his care. As the proceedings unfolded, Ishida came to learn that this predator legitimized his misdeeds by tricking his young victim into believing that their liaison was a wholly innocuous “romantic affair.” Ishida sat in that courtroom in disbelief. A sobering realization hit her that she, too, may have been on the receiving end of what could be construed as child molestation.
In the days that followed that epiphany, the trauma that took away her innocence and upended her adolescence bubbled up to the surface – rearing its ugly head in the forms of bouts of depression and insomnia – leading her to seek professional help from a psychiatrist specialized in treating survivors of sexual abuse. The year was 2015. By then she was already 38-year-old and leading her life in Tokyo as a freelance photographer.
By that point, Ishida had little reason to doubt that emotional distress and mental anguish that she had been saddled with ever since she was a teenager had its roots in the years of abuse she endured as a schoolgirl. But now, her concern was that her plight – far from being a personal issue to be dealt with on her own – may have more serious implications that affect a wider community.
By confronting her teacher in 2015, Ishida claims to have a piece of irrefutable evidence, a self-incriminating audio confession from him. Armed with that material, her team of three lawyers lodged a formal complaint with the city of Sapporo in February of 2016, requesting that its officials take appropriate measures to punish the teacher in question. Her complaint prompted an internal review, launched by the personnel department of the Sapporo City Board of Education. Their ultimate conclusion, however, came as something of a shock to Ishida and her team of legal counsel.
Following their months-long inquiry, the city’s educational officials informed her at a meeting in July of that year (where her lawyers were also present), that the board will not be taking any disciplinary action at this time, according to the board’s internal memorandum transcribing that meeting, which was obtained by Voice Up Japan.
Pressed for an explanation, one of the senior officials in charge of the inquiry told Ishida’s team that the teacher has consistently maintained his innocence of the allegations in three separate hearings that they have conducted. Short of the teacher admitting to the charges leveled against him, this senior official asserted, the board cannot establish that any wrongful acts to have transpired, notwithstanding his confession recorded on tape.
The statute of limitations
In February of last year, Ishida filed a civil lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court against the teacher in question as well as the city of Sapporo, seeking damages for severe psychological trauma that she alleges to have been incurred as the result of years of sexual abuse she was subjected to. Though the judge initially dismissed Ishida’s case in August on the technicality of the statute of limitations, Ishida is currently appealing that decision. She’s arguing that her PTSD symptoms, of vivid flashbacks and recurring nightmares, first developed in earnest in early 2016, and therefore that entitles her to seek recourse.
Hiroko Kotake, Ishida’s lawyer, voiced dissatisfaction at the initial ruling, alleging that the district court failed to take necessary steps to establish basic facts relevant to Ishida’s claims. (One key piece of evidence pertaining to a trauma specialist’s assessment of Ishida’s mental health, for example, was inexplicably deemed lacking credibility, according to Kotake.) The first day of her appeal hearing, on December 12, attracted a packed public gallery, which attests to a growing interest in Ishida’s case among members of the public. The trial is set to resume this spring on May 14.
“We cannot be too optimistic going forward,” Kotake, Ishida’s attorney, warned following the appellate proceeding in December. Kotake reiterated her demand for an opportunity to question witnesses before the judge – the accused teacher as well as Ishida – which the lawyer views as the only viable process that could “determine facts with respect to what really transpired to Ishida.”
“Fundamentally,” Kotake observed, “my client’s case lends credence to the question of whether the statute of limitations” should be reformed, as victims like Ishida step forward to speak out decades after the event. “The fact is that an untold number of individuals in our society suffer sexual abuse as a child or as an adolescent, who have to suffer for a long period of time until they get to express their long repressed [trauma],” Kotake commented. “This is an issue that is still yet to be acknowledged within the Japanese society, which remains, to a large extent, patriarchal.”
An organizer, who runs an advocacy group in support of Ishida’s cause, said she and other volunteers sprung into action once they found out that Ishida lacked the means to pursue an appeal process. “A terrible injustice has been done to Ishida-san, and yet no-one was doing anything about it, and that made me really angry,” the woman said, who asked to be only identified by her last name, Furuhashi. Her citizens-run group, which calls itself “School Me Too,” has set up a website to raise awareness of Ishida’s predicament, in addition to an online donation page to help fund Ishida’s legal costs. “It wasn’t as if I had an agenda,” Furuhashi was careful to note. “But then I thought: ‘What kind of society do we live in, if nobody stands up on the side of someone who’s fighting a lonely battle?’ ”
Japan’s own #MeToo moment
In a recent high-profile case, Shiori Ito, 30, a freelance journalist, braved a fierce backlash by publicly accusing a well-known TV reporter of drugging her and raping her when they met privately to discuss a job opportunity. Ito’s exposé and her subsequent landmark victory in court had a huge ripple effect domestically in terms of instigating conversations about sexual violence against women. However, women such as Ito and Ishida who dare to break silence on matters of sexual misconduct remain few and far between in this deeply conservative country.
Asked why she has come forward on record, Ishida explained her reasoning as follows: “Despite my repeated appeals to Sapporo’s Board of Education, there has been no adequate response no matter the amount of evidence presented to them. In the end, they simply swept everything under the carpet. And that I could not bear. I was left with no alternative but to speak truth to power. And in doing so, I wanted to at least raise awareness of what is happening in Sapporo by spotlighting my pending case.”
Despite her efforts to draw attention to her battle in court, Ishida’s case has, for one reason or another, yet to trigger widespread condemnation in Japan – unlike South Korea where the hashtag #SchoolMeToo has been trending for the past couple of years. “I’m sure many aren’t even aware of my case,” Ishida said. “So there isn’t a mood on the ground” among parents who may otherwise raise concerns “that similar incidents might recur” at schools where their own children are enrolled. “What incenses me the most,” she added, “is that they continue to keep someone like him in a teaching position that grants him access to vulnerable children.”
When reached by email, the Sapporo City Board of Education declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
To learn more about her case, please visit: https://schoolmetooo.wixsite.com/website/english