The success of Japanese media workers speaking out and organizing against sexual violence at work and for greater gender equality shows ways to build a more just and equal society.
How are we to create a more just society? Organization is key, especially at the grassroots. One of the more recent inspiring examples is how women in the Japanese media industry organized against sexual violence and for gender equality.
The story started in 2018 when a female TV reporter revealed that she had been sexually harassed by one of Japan’s more powerful bureaucrats, the then-deputy finance minister, during an interview. The story broke in a weekly tabloid magazine called Shukan Shincho. The reporter had taped the minister as he wheedled: “Can I touch your breast?” “Can I tie you up?” The voice tape soon went viral.
Why did the story break in a tabloid instead of on TV? The reporter approached her bosses with the story and tape but they told her to stay silent, ‘for her own sake’. The response is common. Superiors say they are trying to protect the victims of sexual harassment from a backlash and potential online harassment. Others claim that they are steering their companies away from trouble, or trying to protect access to powerful sources.
Whatever the reason, the reporter refused to stay quiet. In fact, she felt obliged to go public not only because she feared for her safety but mostly because she saw the minister’s advances as infringement of freedom of press and people’s right to know – politicians abusing their power to control the press.
The “Women in Media Network Japan”
Her case sounded so familiar to many other female journalists that it encouraged them to speak out. In May, 2018, more than 80 female journalists established Women in Media Network Japan (WiMN) to expose the widespread sexual harassment and assault in the industry that had been largely kept out of public view. The move was at one level a gesture of solidarity to the TV reporter who faced the threat of transfer or even dismissal.
At a press conference to announce the establishment of WiMN, and to file a protest with the finance ministry, 19 women reporters anonymously revealed they had been exposed to sexual abuse throughout their careers. In statements, some revealed a pattern of forced kissing, groping and fondling by male colleagues and interviewees so common that they grew numb to it.
They also spoke of their sense of responsibility as journalists to speak out, and of their regret that by not doing so before, they may have contributed to the industry’s tolerance of sexual violence. Many had stayed quiet because they had been told that predatory abuse is part of the job, and to just grin and bear it. They were told that such abuse is the path to becoming professional journalists.
These women started recounting similar stories of their own harassment during interviews and reporting. Many poured out decades-old experiences. To maintain “journalistic objectivity,” they had until then kept themselves out of stories of harassment. The case against the television reporter made them realize they were among the voiceless victims they had been reporting all along.
As a commitment to eradicating sexual violence especially in media industry, WiMN compiled confessions, essays and opinions from its members and published them in a book, The State of Sexual Harassment in Media, in February 2020.
This was the onset of Japan’s #MeToo movement, with women in media platforms such as newspapers, wire services, web news and publishing speaking out en masse.
Sexual Harassment Prevalent in the Media Industry
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Japan Congress of Mass Media, Information and Cultural Workers (MIC), more than 70% of women who work in the media say they have been sexually harassed on the job. While harassers are most often male colleagues or superiors, a notable number of cases named politicians, police, prosecutors and bureaucrats as their perpetrators.
These actions empowered one survivor of a 2007 rape case to file a lawsuit against Nagasaki City in April 2019. The alleged rapist was head of the city’s Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Department. He hanged himself a few months after the reporter filed a claim and the city was set to launch an investigation. The city has not officially apologized or even confirmed that she was raped because it said the official in question had committed suicide and the investigation rested.
That reporter’s case was the first taken up by the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers’ Unions (Shimbunroren) since it appealed to women working in newspapers and wire services to end their silence and report sexual violence on the job.
Shimbunroren filed a demand with the industry body, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, that it adopt a strict no-tolerance policy against any sexual harassment and protect the victims under the understanding that harassment is a violation of human rights.
When women address cases of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, the issues are often minimized. One reason is that the media industry, like others, is male-dominated. Roughly 20% of the media workforce in Japan is female. Just 6.4% of the management of newspapers and wire services are women (the figure is 6.5% in commercial broadcasters). There are almost no women on the boards of media companies. At prime ministerial press conferences, there may only be a single woman attending. One reporter said that until recently, the Bank of Japan (her beat) didn’t even have a female restroom.
More women in management would not only help create a more gender-neutral workplace: It might encourage victims of sexual harassment to report not just their own cases, but those of others. Female journalists often express frustration that such stories are hard to get past male-dominated newsrooms—a narrow gatekeeping for diverse issues, which fails to reflect society.
The Key Role of Labor Union
Labor must first spearhead changes to the corporate world. Before it saw any positive changes in management, Shimbunroren in July 2019 recruited eight women to its all-male executive committee to achieve the critical mass of 30%, which accelerated the movement within the union and across the media industry.
As the federation organizes nearly 20,000 members in the newspapers and wire services across the nation, the campaign boosted coverage of gender-based violence and the #MeToo accounts.
With their voices amplified and heard, women in Shimbunroren published a book in March 2022 that questions gender-specific expressions in media that exacerbate stereotypes and prejudice.
Gender Expression Guidebook, which was put together by nearly 30 members of the union federation — mostly women — examines unconscious bias, excessive gender specifications, harassment on the Internet and SNS, and the systemic discrimination that has long minimized sexual violence and contributed to inflicting further pain on victims.
For instance, media often objectify women in hopes of drawing more readers and viewers. We often see close-up of women cheering at a baseball game on sports programs. Or when stories explain how male members of society are “helping” house chores or child-raring. The book points out that such a description implies that men are not the main players of these tasks. Or even when sexual minorities are portrayed as “creative,” “intelligent” and “fashionistas,” a certain bias is at play.
The effort materialized from the journalists’ resentment of complicity in gender biases. In an era when anyone can claim to be a journalist, the book proposes a list of essential tips on how to monitor and improve expressions such as keeping transparency in the editorial process and ensuring gender-balance among decision makers.
All this generated a small courageous ripple of change through the media industry and Japanese society. One sign came on May 30, 2022, with an important legal victory. Nagasaki District Court ordered the city to pay nearly 20 million yen in compensation to the reporter who made her rape claims 15 years ago. The ruling recognized that the former high-ranking Nagasaki City official abused his power and privilege as an interviewee and raped her in exchange for important information necessary for the news story she was trying to file at the time.
The court also said that the city failed to fulfill its responsibility to prevent the spread of rumor and media coverage based on hearsay, which ended up further causing the reporter mental distress. Although the reporter is still employed by the same company, the case kept her away from daily reporting duties for the last 15 years.
The ruling was also significant for journalists as it defined “work” outside of workplaces and regular work hours. Meeting sources often takes place in drinking establishments and hotels at night – which puts female reporters in situations of particular vulnerability. The Nagasaki reporter had been invited to meet the city official for an interview in the early hours, and was raped in a hotel.
In the meantime, pressure is mounting against the city to live up to its international claim as a city that has promoted peace for the past 77 years since it was devastated by the atomic bomb. A campaign has spread since the verdict calling on Nagasaki City not to appeal the court ruling and to make an official apology to the survivor. Unions, supporters and atomic bomb survivors claim that the city cannot call itself “pacifist” unless it vows never to violate women’s rights and threaten their safety.
Other women in news media have been encouraged to take action for change in their own companies in response to the verdict and the struggle of one female journalist.
Japanese journalists once met criticism for lacking solidarity in times of struggle. However, solidarity is being built as this verdict means sexual violence against female journalists – or any violence against any journalist, for that matter – can be considered obstruction of reporting and infringement of Article 21 of the Japanese constitution, which protects the free press. In other words, it protects peoples’ right to know.
The fight to end violence against women and achieve gender equality is only getting started. But we know now that the key is to keep organizing and pushing the movement forward, with women at the center stage.