When a top finance ministry bureaucrat resigned after being accused of sexually harassing a female reporter, it appeared that Japan had broken a national conspiracy of silence and was finally ready for its “#MeToo” moment.

But so far, the scandal has done little more than remind Japan of its powerful aversion — among women as well as men — to addressing the sexual harassment and gender discrimination that is not exclusive to the media industry but entrenched across Japan’s workplace.

“If you ask all the female reporters if they have a #MeToo moment, of course they will,” said one female reporter who works at a broadcaster. “Is this a #MeToo moment for Japan? I don’t think so. Not yet. There is far too much criticism of the women involved, and who wants to face that as well as the harassment itself?”

Similar dynamics apply in many other settings such as sales, or within corporate bureaucracies, where women may be expected to tolerate harassment for the good of the organisation.

In a 2016 survey, the health ministry found that almost a third of Japanese women had been sexually harassed at work, while more than 60 per cent of those women chose to suffer in silence. Citing the report, the US State Department’s latest human rights report noted that “sexual harassment in the workplace remained widespread” in Japan.

The Japanese media, rather than rallying to defend one of its own, allowed the focus of blame to drift and branded the scandal a josei mondai, or “woman problem”. Junichi Fukuda, the ministry’s administrative vice-minister, resigned in April after weekly news magazine Shukan Shincho released a tape that allegedly recorded him asking to touch a female reporter’s breasts. 

The finance ministry’s investigation concluded that Mr Fukuda, who denies the allegation, had sexually harassed the reporter.

As the case unfolded, a vicious smear campaign on Twitter targeted the female reporter, who worked for TV Asahi. The broadcaster, which admitted that one of its reporters had made the recording and given it to the magazine after her boss failed to address her complaint, also criticised the employee for passing on her information to a third party. 

One senior politician went as far as accusing the reporter of committing a “crime” for recording her conversations with Mr Fukuda, while Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister, suggested that Mr Fukuda “had been framed”.

The latest incident is only the “tip of the iceberg”, according to female journalists, who say politicians, bureaucrats, company bosses and colleagues would rather turn a blind eye than seriously address the problem.

The Financial Times spoke with seven former and current female reporters from five of Japan’s biggest broadcasters, regional newspapers and news agencies. All the women spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about being exposed and punished for speaking out. 

Factors that prevent women speaking out on sexual harassment include skewed work ethics, a shaming culture, a “put up or shut up” attitude and structural challenges within Japan’s insular press club system. 

“There is a climate where female journalists are expected to tolerate sexual harassment if it is for reporting purposes,” said Katsuyuki Kamei, risk management expert at Kansai University. “There are fundamental questions to how reporting is carried out in Japan.”

One former political reporter, who recognises many of the details of the Fukuda incident from her own career, says that Japan’s reluctance to address sexual harassment is driven by concerns that to do so would demand radical changes to Japan’s workplace conventions.

“What you are seeing with this incident is not only about gender and sexual harassment, but about the whole structure of the way Japanese media works, and even more widely, how Japanese workplaces function,” she said. “There is a culture of exploitation by the employers, and a culture among employees where they in some important ways expect to be exploited.”

In the case of Mr Fukuda’s alleged misdeeds, little will probably change, say women who have suffered abuse at different ministries. They blame a newsgathering structure that pushes young women to form close relationships with powerful men and actively encourages that to occur through one-on-one meetings in settings of the latter’s choosing.

“One of the things that is most exploited [by media companies] is fear — you are told from the first day that the point of journalism is not just getting a story, but ensuring that you have exactly the same story that everyone else has, otherwise you are a total failure,” said one journalist. 

“That is imprinted most strongly in the minds of the young journalists who they send out to form relationships with the bureaucrats, the police, the politicians and whoever. Do they send the younger, more attractive women to do that? Of course — it is a very clear strategic decision.”

The culture of silence and resignation is fuelled by a sense of duty and fear of losing sources, giving rise to generations of female reporters who have tolerated various kinds of sexual abuse from kisses, breast touching, to knee rubs in the taxi.

“I told myself that my job is to report on politics and tried not to think about these experiences,” said a female reporter aged in her 40s who works at a major Japanese newspaper. “My job was more important than tackling sexual harassment.” 

A deeper problem, these female reporters say, is that sexual harassment has become so endemic in everyday life that they no longer recognise it as an issue to be addressed. “You have to become numb or else you cannot survive in this industry,” said another middle-aged TV reporter.

Still, that does not mean Japan’s younger generation will follow the same path taken by their mentors.

“I would have done the same thing as this TV Asahi reporter,” said a female TV journalist in her late 20s. “I respect what my senpai [mentors] have done, but that doesn’t mean I will tolerate sexual harassment to do my reporting.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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