Recently Japan Subculture Research Center’s acting editor-in-chief, Jake Adelstein, and managing editor, Mari Yamamoto, published an article, “Do Men In Japan Ever Get Convicted For Rape?” in the Daily Beast on the need for change in the sexual assault laws and the handling of the cases in Japan.
An excerpt of the actual attempted assault of a visiting scholar was a large part of the article and since it has triggered a tremendous response, below is the full account. The overall response to the article has been immense and there will be a follow up but it is worth reiterating, the official numbers of sexual assault cases are most likely grossly underestimated. Sexual assault in Japan is seldom discussed even in the confidence of friends.
Long time prosecutor Kazuko Tanaka depicts the bleak landscape of sexual assault investigation in her book “Sexual Crimes and Child Abuse Investigation Handbook” published in 2014.
“While 100% of those who are victims of theft would (be assumed to) file a police report, according to a 2008 Ministry of Justice’s research of the estimated actual numbers of crimes, the rates of reports made were 13.3%. However, in the 2011 Cabinet Gender Equality Bureau’s “Research on Violence Between the Sexes” (男女間における暴力に関する調査) they found that only 3.7% of people who confided in others went to the police and 67.9% of the victims did not tell anybody at all. Therefore it can be estimated that only 4% of the cases are being reported and if the report rate was 100%, the case numbers (of sexual assault in Japan) would increase by 25 times.”
For those who can read Japanese, the book documents in great detail, many of the problems with sexual assault in Japan, both the low rate of reporting and the poor handling by law enforcement. We have received many personal letters and emails from other victims. A harrowing account of a foreign woman who was raped in Japan in 2014, was also published in the Japan Times. The majority of victims in Japan, are of course, Japanese women. And sometimes men.
Here is the account of one woman in Japan, who barely escaped sexual assault, and who experienced the police at their laziest.
“I lived in a sleepy neighborhood close to a prestigious University, a place where most residents were over sixty and my biggest fear was how I could ever make enough cakes to repay them for the treats they regularly brought me. I often told friends and colleagues how relieved I was to be spending my two years of dissertation research in an area free of the hustle and bustle of Shibuya or Shinjuku’s youth and seedy corners. Like many people, I considered Japan the safest country I had ever visited. Here, I rarely feared walking alone after dark or glanced around with the same caution I would even in the safest towns in the U.S.
But last year, as I returned home late from a weeknight birthday celebration, a man quietly followed me down a side street two blocks from my apartment. Past the cozy stoop where I normally pause to pet the neighborhood Labrador and snap photos of the local store cat, to the residential interior not visible from the main road. Unknown to me, he trailed only a few feet behind. As I passed in front of the local childcare center, I glimpsed him over my shoulder just as he rushed to quickly seize me from behind and force me to the ground. Though he groped at me from above as I thrashed in resistance and screamed a litany of English profanities at him, my attacker soon gave up and just as quickly fled the way we had come. Sprawled in the street under the lighted windows of dozens of nearby apartments and bleeding from the elbow I’d hit the concrete on, I stared at the scattered contents of my purse and the lost shoe that lay a few feet away. No one looked outside. No one opened their doors. I was alone.
As I gathered my things and walked the block to my apartment, all I could think about was what I had heard from others—that Japanese police don’t take assaults on or the molestation of women seriously. The article I had read two years ago in the Japan Times on the shamefully poor handling of one woman’s rape case was running through my mind. Shaken and trying not to touch my bloody arm, I called my best friend in America, agonizing over the thought of waking my elderly neighbors up, or having to go back to the police station alone (in the direction my attacker had run), only to face the coming ordeal in Japanese, when it was hard enough to endure in English.
I finally settled on walking back to the police box several blocks away, and there, my every expectation of being taken lightly and having the truth of my experience denied was met with an insidious subtly that was not subtle at all.
Don’t get me wrong, people cared that I was hurt. The elderly officer at the police box was immediately alert and upset. He sat me down and called someone with more haste than anyone else I saw that night. This kind of crime, I was told, had never occurred in my area. He was alarmed. Even more alarmed, or perhaps especially so, after I mentioned I was a researcher at said renowned University. Suddenly, I really mattered.
After an awkward call to a policewoman that I struggled through, not knowing the vocabulary for my attack (when had I ever had the need to learn the word for ‘physical assault’ or ‘rape’?), the tiny police box was soon filled over capacity with other officers. Only the elderly gentleman had the presence of mind to tell them to move me to the back, away from the door and windows, to question me.
I was interrogated about the attack over and over again by multiple officers, asked where, when, what he looked like, to mimic the motions of the way the man grabbed me, again, again. They snapped photos of my bloody elbows, trying to find a good way to do so crammed in the tiny back room. I wondered if this was how questioning normally occurred, stuffed into this claustrophobic space, loomed over by five officers in a room, only two of whom really fit in the room with me. But more than the inappropriateness of the space, I began to notice the tenor of the questions.
“What did he look like? He was a foreigner, wasn’t he? Was he white? An American?”
No, I said, he was Japanese.
“A Korean? Probably a Korean or a Chinese person?”
No, I said, he was Japanese.
“She said he looked like a regular salaryman [white collar worker],” the one female officer in the room interjected, “She said he was Japanese.”
“Are you sure he was wearing a white dress shirt? Wasn’t it more like a t-shirt?”
No, I said, repeating myself for the third time. It was a short-sleeved collared shirt.
“And pants like these?” A male officer suggested, tugging on his black cargoes.
No, I said, repeating myself again. They were slacks.
“Like a salaryman,” the female officer echoed. “That’s what she said.”
Interspersed with the suggestions that my attacker could not have possibly looked like a Japanese business man, the officers inserted every few minutes, “You don’t want to submit a police report, right?”
The first few times I hadn’t caught onto the word, and from context I couldn’t tell if I should say yes or no. I heard the word “higai,” damage or injury, in there, but didn’t realize “higaitodoke” was a police report, and stumbled through the questions adrenaline-addled; avoiding giving an answer to something I didn’t understand.
Not twenty minutes after this inquisition, they drove me back to the scene of the crime and for half an hour had me show them the exact spot where it happened. The how, the when, the where. This time, they wanted me to re-enact the situation with a female officer, so they could take photos of what the event must have looked like. What if I had been raped? I wondered. Or of a more delicate state of mind after this attack, like others might be? How traumatizing could it have been for four officers to take me back to the scene not half an hour later and make me walk them through it while a stranger put their hands on me in the exact same way I had been assaulted? It made me sick to my stomach to later learn this is standard procedure, and even women who have been raped are made to reenact or watch reenactments of their attack for the sake of police records.
I was asked several more times about submitting a police report, in the same manner as before. “You could submit a police report, but…”, “Are you sure you want to?”, “You know you don’t have to…”, “It’s already so late at night, aren’t you too tired?” The female office was the only one who stepped in, saying “But what if it happens again to another girl?”
I understood the meaning fully this time.
The realization that the way every male officer had been asking me about the police report, as if to file a formal complaint about my assault was a giant inconvenience, a futile and wholly unnecessary effort, made me livid. I thought about how many other women in Japan must have been encouraged not to submit police reports. To bury their stories and their (perceived) shame for the sake of convenience. It was 2 AM. I assured them a police report was exactly what I wanted.
I was driven to the police station, where two male officers took me into a small room and set up a laptop and portable printer. All of the previous information was gone through several more times, with mind-numbing repetition, and equally mind-numbing insensitivity. The same series of questions about whether I was sure he was Japanese.
“How do you know?” One officer asked.
“I’ve been studying Japanese for ten years, and I’ve lived in Japan for four years, I know what a Japanese person looks like.” I had made the mistake of mentioning a Korean restaurant nearby as a landmark in describing the small street I went down. They jumped on it.
“So it was surely a Korean man,” the officer said with confidence.
The restaurant is, in fact, owned by a very kind Japanese lady.
“He was Japanese,” I protested.
“You can tell the difference between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people?” the officer scoffed.
“I can usually tell the difference.”
“What? Can you really? Even I can’t do that,” he countered.
Of course, I thought to myself. My truth did not fit the standard, discriminatory narrative in Japan: That Japanese people don’t frequently commit crimes, foreigners do. Sure, there is room for doubt—it was dark, I was struggling, he was a stranger. The reaction of pure disbelief at my story, several times over, layered with a healthy dose of anti-foreign sentiment was startling but not shocking. As a victim, I was unsettled; as someone familiar with the deeply ingrained racism prevalent in many areas of Japanese society at large, I recognized with disappointment what I heard.
But worse yet was the more common disbelief that is shared widely around the world: that assault on women is not a real crime, especially not if it doesn’t go too far, and that men must have their reasons. In the middle of the report, I was asked to do another reenactment, this time in a tiny tatami room on another floor of the police station. The female officer joined us again, and once more I had to relive my attack under the watchful eyes of two more male officers, one with a camera, one an observer, while the woman apologetically asked where she should put her arms on me and we repeatedly paused in awkward mid-motion so they could take photos of our positions.
Amidst the perverse recreation, the older male officer paused us, and added, “But grabbing you like that, he didn’t actually grab your boobs, did he? Or did he try to? Did he actually put his hands on them or not? He only grabbed your arms?” I gawked at the questions. Not only because I had never heard a professional use the casual term for breasts, oppai, and never expected to in such a serious situation, but because the officer seemed to want to downplay the seriousness of the attack.
“He didn’t have the chance,” I fumbled to explain. While it could have been an innocent line of inquiry, it didn’t feel that way at all from the way he asked—it was very clear that there was a line to be drawn here between assault and sexual assault. A gravity no one wanted to lay claim to in this situation. “Did you think he wanted to rape you? No, right?” Someone had asked at some point. Why else, I wondered to myself, would they think a man stalked a woman several minutes down a dark empty street in the middle of the night and attack her? Sure, it was an assault, but maybe it wasn’t sexual, they implied.
Then there was the question of alcohol. Several times over it came up. Was he drunk? Did he smell like alcohol? Did he walk funny? Maybe he was just drunk, and it was a mistake. I doubt a drunk man would have the presence of mind to stalk after me so quietly, for so long, to rush at me just as I took notice of him. To run that fast once I had fought him off too vigorously and too loudly to be worth the trouble any more. But if a man is drunk, sexual assault is perfectly normal, isn’t it? Their brief actions have little impact? Isn’t that what society tells us? Clearly Americans are not the only ones.
Even as the officers were finishing up my police report, one of them looked to me and said, “You know, you’re going back home at the end of August. If you file this report and it goes to trial, will you really come back here?” I answered sharply, “If necessary,” so fast that he looked taken aback. How many women, I wondered, did police regularly convince to deny the truth of their attack? To drop making a report, because it was unlikely to lead to conviction? Because it might hurt their crime statistics? Because assault on women didn’t actually matter?
I do not write this with the intention setting flame to the reputation of my local police or to vilify these officers that rallied quickly when I told them I was hurt. I write this because it is apparent to me— now through vivid personal experience— that in Japan, just as in many nations, sexual assault on women (to speak nothing of others who suffer as well) is taken lightly in a manner that points to a disturbing lack of proper training, sensitivity, and respect for women and victims.
Inherent cultural biases against the belief that Japanese can commit crimes, that crimes against women are important enough to report, that such crimes have to be grave to matter—all of these issues meant that my story was questioned at every step, and that subtle or not, I was constantly dissuaded from “enduring” proper procedure for reporting a serious crime.
The Japanese National Policy Agency’s informational materials on police support for sex crime victims state that “It is also unavoidable that officers, in their contacts with victims, often cause them to suffer secondary victimization,” and then lists the measures and policies the police take to support victims who suffer this type of assault, such as counseling, special investigators, or appointing female officers to offer assistance. But the fact of the matter is that secondary victimization is largely avoidable, if officers are trained to handle responding to victims appropriately.
Throughout my experience there was no awareness that taking a victim back to the scene of the crime only minutes after it occurred, making them re-enact the event several times, and using insensitive language or lines of questioning could be at all traumatizing. Every person involved was absolutely oblivious, and I was not asked once if anything made me uncomfortable. I was never formally told what the police procedures were at any point of the process (other than the option to not submit a report at all). With the exception of the contact information memo I received at the very end of my four hours at the station, only one person– the elderly man with whom I first spoke at the police box— ever showed me a badge or gave me their names. The extent to which officers failed to fundamentally understand what it meant to properly handle this type of assault with consideration of and respect for the victim was appalling.
Throughout the entire ordeal I wondered to myself, how much worse or more unprofessionally would I have been treated if I had not been a researcher at a prestigious university? If I didn’t know Japanese? Would I have been afforded any more respect if I had been seriously injured? Raped? Would they have considered me important at all if I had just been some twenty-something young tourist? If I had been a Japanese woman, even? That I even had to ask myself such questions about who matters points to the gross negligence in training Japanese police officers to handle these sensitive subjects. To see beyond their personal biases and the deeply embedded flaws in the legal system to do good police work and bring justice to those who sorely need it.
With the Olympics around the corner and a huge influx of foreigners expected to populate the greater Tokyo area in the next four years, perpetrators will find ample opportunity to harass, assault, or sexually prey upon foreign victims, especially. And without a doubt, they will be more likely to do so because they know the system all but guarantees that the chance they will be caught or punished is abysmally small.
I returned to the U.S. shortly thereafter, and the police, refusing to accept any form of contact information from me except a Japanese phone number, defunct after my departure, will never be able to contact me again.
They will never catch the man. But that police report mattered. Women matter. Their safety matters. Procedure matters. Their stories matter. Their dignity matters. Though you would not have known it to be sitting in that police station.”
We make it our mission to keep writing about sexual violence in Japan. If you have a story you would like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org