Verdict due in landmark Japan army sexual assault case

08 Dec 2023 12:06pm
Rina Gonoi, a former member of Japan's Ground Self-Defence Force who was sexually assaulted by colleagues, checking old photos on her phone during an interview with AFP in Tokyo. - AFP FILE PIX
Rina Gonoi, a former member of Japan's Ground Self-Defence Force who was sexually assaulted by colleagues, checking old photos on her phone during an interview with AFP in Tokyo. - AFP FILE PIX

TOKYO - A Japanese court is due Tuesday to give a verdict in the landmark trial of three ex-soldiers accused of sexual assault in a country where still very few victims come forward.

Rina Gonoi, 24, won praise but also hate when she went public last year -- after a military probe found insufficient evidence -- accusing fellow soldiers of assaulting her while others watched and laughed.

Her YouTube video went viral and more than 100,000 people signed a petition she submitted to the defence ministry, which then acknowledged the assault and apologised.

In March, prosecutors reversed an earlier decision and charged the three men, since dismissed from the military, who face two years in prison if convicted.

- Childhood dream -

It had been Gonoi's childhood dream to join the military after she saw female soldiers helping in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Fukushima region where she grew up.

So going public was an agonising choice, she told AFP in an interview in February.

"It was the last resort," she said, describing herself as "desperate rather than brave".

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Gonoi said she experienced harassment daily after enlisting in 2020.

"When walking down the hallway, someone slaps you on your hip, or holds you from behind," she told AFP.

"I was kissed on the cheek, and my breasts were grabbed."

Then, during a drill in 2021, she says three colleagues pressed her to the ground, forced apart her legs and each repeatedly pressed their crotches against her.

- 'Rape myth' -

Women are rare in the upper echelons of Japanese politics, business and government -- and military -- and the gender pay gap is the worst among the G7 group of advanced economies.

The global #MeToo movement met a muted response in Japan, and prominent cases such as Gonoi's -- and a handful of others like that of journalist Shiori Ito, who accused a prominent TV reporter of rape -- are rare.

"In Japan, suffering sexual violence brings stigma and shame, often leaving survivors reluctant to come forward," Teppei Kasai from Human Rights Watch told AFP.

A 2021 government survey showed that about six percent of assault victims, both men and women, reported the incidents to police, while nearly half of women respondents said they couldn't because of "embarrassment", Kasai said.

"The 'rape myth' persists in Japan, meaning that there is a widespread assumption that the victims of rape and sexual assault are at fault," said Machiko Osawa, a researcher at Japan Women's University.

"As a result, a vicious cycle of silence, shame, unawareness, and inertia continues to allow this hidden plague to flourish," she said in a research note.

- Stricter laws -

Chizuko Ueno, professor emerita at the University of Tokyo and president of the Women's Action Network, said the costs of taking legal action, financial and emotional, are also often so high that it is "understandable that many victims hesitate to file suits".

Inspired by Gonoi, however, more than 1,400 women and men submitted their own allegations of sexual harassment and bullying in the military following a special inspection by the defence ministry.

Britain's BBC in November included Gonoi on a list of 100 "inspiring and influential women" for 2023. Time magazine also included her in its "100 Next" list of people to watch.

Japan in 2017 hiked minimum jail terms for rapists and this June removed the requirement that victims prove they had sought to resist their attacker.

- 'It's tough' -

But Gonoi, who is also suing her alleged attackers and the government in a parallel civil case, became a target of vicious vitriol online by coming forward.

"I was prepared for defamation, but it's tough," she told AFP, saying at one point it got so bad she didn't leave her home for five days.

"There's something wrong with Japan -- people attack victims instead of perpetrators." - Kyoko Hasegawa / AFP