Suspension of councilors raises concerns about silencing victims of sexual abuse in Japan

A rural Japanese town voted its only female adviser out of her seat after she accused the mayor of sexual abuse. The public referendum on whether she had damaged the city’s reputation highlighted the backlash against women who appear with allegations of sexual abuse.

The referendum on December 6 marked a fantastic defeat for the first and only female member of Kusatsu City Council.

With 2,542 votes in favor and 208 against, more than 90% of participants voted to recall Councilwoman Shoko Arai for “damaging the city’s reputation” after she claimed that the most powerful local politician had sexually assaulted her.

The unsurpassed recall of a small town of 6,200 inhabitants, known for its hot springs, attracted national attention.

Women’s rights activists said it served as an example of how women who appear with allegations of sexual abuse are generally treated in Japan.

Others expressed concern about how the mayor and other council members orchestrated the recall – a democratic tool designed to hold elected officials accountable for inaccuracies.

The event was also a reminder of the lack of female representation in Japanese politics. The country ranks 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report.

Both sides claim victims

The dispute began late last year, after Arai, 51, said in an e-book that the city’s mayor, Nobutada Kuroiwa, had forced her to have sex in her office in 2015.

She later explained that she did not report the assault to the police at the time because she feared a backlash, but then decided to speak out to defend other women “who were treated as objects” and were often ashamed to submit.

Kuroiwa, 73, denied the allegations and accused her of trying to torture his name for political reasons. He filed a criminal case and a civil defamation trial. In Japan, a person can be prosecuted if they slander another by publicly stating facts, whether such facts are true or false (Criminal Code Article 230-1).

The mayor, who is the chairman of the city council, then took the matter to the assembly and asked Arai to provide evidence.

During a session, he presented an enlarged photo of his office and pressured her to tell exactly how the alleged assault took place. Arai refused.

The council then voted to expel the councilor to “humiliate” the assembly. When the decision was overturned by the prefectural authorities, Kuroiwa and his allies gathered enough signatures to hold a recall election on Arai’s position and campaigned hard for a “yes” vote.

“Other rapes”

Arai’s supporters and women’s rights activists said city politicians described her as a liar and relentlessly tried to discredit her as a “second rape”.

City council posted videos of some online gatherings showing how Arai, citing ongoing legal proceedings, refused to provide evidence required by her colleagues.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, dozens of posters accusing her of damaging the city’s reputation “through her words and deeds” appeared around the city, including at bus stops, hotels and public parking lots.

Author Minori Kitahara, who observed one of the meetings in Kusatsu, said: ” Although the mayor did not commit the alleged crime, the congregation itself was full of sexual violence and misogyny. ”

It is rare in Japan for victims of sexual abuse to come forward with their stories. A government survey in 2017 showed that only 2.8% of female rape victims sought help from the police, while 59% said they did not tell anyone.

According to the UN, one in three women around the world has experienced physical or sexual violence once in their life, but less than 40% sought help. Of these, only 10% went to the police.

The low figures in Japan can be partly attributed to high legal barriers. Under Japanese law, the burden of proof lies with the victims of sexual violence. Social pressure to avoid embarrassment for oneself and others, as well as extensive victim blaming, also makes it difficult for victims to speak out.

In 2018, a senior finance minister resigned after a TV journalist accused him of sexual harassment. The journalist had taken her story to a newspaper after her own bosses at work advised her to keep quiet.

Shiori Ito, another journalist who became a symbol of the country’s #MeToo movement after accusing a well-known TV reporter of rape, was met with a huge backlash. Although no criminal charges were brought against the alleged attacker, she won compensation in a civil lawsuit and is suing a female cartoonist for a series of Twitter posts that she says smeared her after she was published with her story.

Earlier this year, Mio Sugita, a Conservative female MP from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, came under fire after she was quoted as saying “women can tell lies as much as they want” during a discussion on sexual violence. Her remark led the party to reprimand her.

‘100% a lie’

Kusatsu’s mayor defended her efforts to get the council out, saying her story is “100% a lie and fabrication”.

He told Jowharthat while forensic investigations had not yet been completed, a recall “was necessary to prevent her from continuing to spread falsehood around the world”.

“It was not my personal reputation that was at stake,” Kuroiwa said. “She damaged the image of Kusatsu. 92.4% of voters rejected her. It shows how much she has angered the city’s residents. ”

Arai stands by his claim. In an email, she said the referendum was unfair and suggested that voters be under pressure to support the mayor and other council members, who are also influential businessmen.

“This campaign was led by the authorities,” she said. “It goes against the principle of revocation, which is intended as a way for ordinary citizens to say whether a politician is unfit for office. ”

Abuse of a democratic tool?

Legal experts have also questioned how the city’s politicians tried to remove her, first through a vote in the parish and then through a popular referendum.

Yuko Hayata, a member of a group of lawyers defending civil rights and freedoms, said it was a thinly veiled attempt by the mayor and his allies to determine whether Arai had lied or not through majority rule.

Facts must be established through judicial inquiries, not by referendum. Sex offenses are a human rights issue. The voice of an alleged victim should not be suppressed by the power of the majority, ” she told Jowharin an email.

In a tweet, Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of political science at Hosei University, called the measure “autocracy of the majority”.

An online petition against the recall, launched by Arai before the vote, has so far garnered more than 15,000 signatures.

Arai will hold a press conference on Friday following a similar move by Kuroiwa earlier this week.

She has said she will consider taking legal action without giving further details, and that she is willing to cooperate fully with the police in the defamation case filed by the mayor.