WHEN a female reporter for TV Asahi told Shukan Shincho, a magazine, that Junichi Fukuda, the finance ministry’s top bureaucrat, had repeatedly sexually harassed her, the reaction was galling. Taro Aso, the finance minister, said he had no plans to investigate Mr Fukuda. When the reporter provided audio recordings as evidence, Mr Fukuda said he couldn’t be sure the voice was his. “I only hear my voice through my own body,” he explained. For its part, TV Asahi apologised for the fact the reporter had told her story to the magazine—failing to note that she had done so only after she had come to one of her own managers and he had advised her to keep quiet. (The company did eventually lodge a formal complaint with the ministry.)
The #MeToo movement has barely touched Japan. “This is a land of men,” says a (male) former official, who says there are “many, many” such cases. The imbalance between men and women in society and the workplace is more lopsided than in other rich countries, leaving women both prey to abuse and reluctant to speak out. Most women work, but almost all bosses and top officials are men, says Kazue Muta of Osaka University. Some women, especially female reporters who are expected to drink with (usually male) sources, see enduring sexual harassment as part of the job.
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The imported term for sexual harassment, seku-hara, was coined only in 1989. The law obliging employers to take action against it took force in 1999. “Many just see it as unrequited or complicated love in the workplace,” says Mieko Takenobu, a former reporter who heads the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Centre, an NGO. The culture of respect for elites does not help. Victims tend to be blamed and ostracised, not sympathised with. TV Asahi’s reporter has not revealed her identity.
Yet some hope this is a pivotal moment. Mr Fukuda, who is alleged to have said things like “Can I touch your breasts?” and suggested that he and the reporter have an affair, has resigned (without admitting wrongdoing). It is the first time in 20 years that a senior finance-ministry official has stepped down over misconduct. The incident follows two similar cases in the business world. In one, a CEO resigned as head of a company he had founded after admitting harassing women in his previous role as an executive at Dentsu, Japan’s biggest advertising agency. And both the president and a junior executive of NH Foods stepped down over remarks the latter had made to an airline employee during a business trip.
Other ways in which women are discriminated against are also drawing attention. This month sexist rules in sumo came under fire when female first-aiders attending a sick man were ordered to leave the ring. Some female politicians are encouraging more women, who are only 10% of the Diet, to run for office. And this year a court will reconsider the rule that married couples must share a surname, which in practice forces women to change theirs.
Opposition parties are pushing for Mr Fukuda to be investigated and denied his full retirement benefits. Some are calling for Mr Aso to resign. Seiko Noda, the internal affairs and communications minister, and one of only two women in the 20-person cabinet, has criticised the finance ministry’s handling of the case.
Whether the momentum continues is up to women more broadly, says Ms Takenobu. Japan lacks a strong grassroots campaign. As Ms Noda observes, rights in Japan tend to be “given, not won”. Those pushing for change see most hope in Japan’s current labour shortage. Companies are desperate for workers, and are trying to woo women with promises of good conditions. While they speak mainly about flexible working hours, workplaces where women are not groped or propositioned would presumably also be a draw.