In Depth

Shiori Ito wins rape case in watershed moment

Lawsuit focused attention on Japan’s record on women’s rights

A Japanese journalist has won ¥3.3m (£23,000) in damages in a landmark civil case against a man she accuses of raping her.

Shiori Ito, 30, alleges that she was raped by 53-year-old Noriyuki Yamaguchi - a powerful media figure who was Washington bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System at the time - after an evening out with him in 2015.

They met after Yamaguchi offered to help Ito find a job, but she regained consciousness hours later to find him having sex with her.

“The act was conducted against her will and she has no motive for making a false statement,” said presiding judge Akihiro Suzuki in a court judgment, also remarking he found Ito to be “highly trustworthy”.

“By contrast, Yamaguchi’s explanation changed an unreasonable amount, raising serious doubts about its credibility,” he said.

Watershed moment for Japan’s women’s rights culture

Up until this point, the #MeToo movement and broader women’s rights causes have failed to gain a strong foothold in Japan. Ito’s case has shone a light on “Japan’s outdated rape laws and the obstacles women face in alleging sexual misconduct in a nation run by a conservative, male-dominated establishment”, says The Washington Post.

According to a 2017 survey by the Japanese government, only 4% of rape cases are reported in the country, and Ito has become a figurehead for the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.

In a statement outside the court, Ito said she realised the symbolic value of the judge’s decision.

“I am truly glad I was able to deliver everyone a good result,” she said, holding up a sign with the word “victory” written on it. “It has been a long time, but even little by little, a big change is happening. The scene I am witnessing is completely different from the one I used to see before... Even today, there are so many people who are fighting alone. I hope it will become easier for them to feel less worried going forward.”

Japan’s rape laws do not mention the notion of consent, and Ito has made changing this a key part of her message. “If non-consensual sexual intercourse is defined as rape in the law,” she said, “the hurdle to prosecute would be much lower.”

However, she also reflected on the personal toll inflicted. “I was able to come this far with the support of many people. The court decision let me end one chapter, but a win doesn’t wipe away everything that happened. I need to face my emotional scars from now. This is not the end.”

For his part, Yamaguchi dismissed Ito’s version of events as “lies”, and said at a press conference following the ruling that he planned to appeal in the near future. “I’ve never done anything that breaks the law,” he said.

Ito’s initial complaint filed with the police after the incident “was dropped by prosecutors who said there was insufficient evidence”, explains The Japan Times.

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Cultural headwinds

Ito’s story, which was the subject of a BBC documentary last year, has drawn international attention to the difficulties faced by Japan’s women when sexual violence is concerned. When she first went to the police, they asked her “to physically recreate the events of that night on a mattress using a life-sized doll to represent her attacker”, details The Guardian.

She also had to “explain to a male police officer exactly why she wanted to speak to a female officer”, as there was no female officer available to file her report, in what is a very male-dominated force, reports the newspaper.

Still, police did uncover some corroborating details. A taxi driver who picked up Ito and Yamaguchi testified he had witnessed her asking to get out at a train station, then saw her lose consciousness, while security cameras at the hotel where Yamaguchi was staying showed Ito being taken through the lobby, apparently unconscious.

Despite this evidence, in the end, the criminal case against her alleged assailant was dropped by prosecutors, prompting Ito seek civil damages of ¥11m, roughly £76,000. She only won a third of that sum, but the victory remains a vindication.

Yamaguchi countersued for damages of ¥132m, about £920,000, but the court said his claims were “groundless”.

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