Foreigners victims, perpetrators of sekuhara

Japan sees progress on sexual harassment, but stories suggest it still has a long way to go

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL) was passed in 1985, it was not until 1999 that revisions to the law included definitions of sexual harassment and legal penalties for employers. These penalties, however, only allow for making the names of the offending companies public. They do not allow for the government to assess fines, nor for plaintiffs to seek punitive damages against the employer — something the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) raised concerns about last year.

There has been, however, an increase in public awareness of sexual harassment in Japan. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 8,120 women filed sexual harassment complaints with equal employment opportunity offices in 2008, compared with 7,706 in 2004 and 2,534 in 1997.

“Elizabeth” came to Osaka from New Zealand in her early 30s to work for the Nova English-language teaching chain, before its much-publicized bankruptcy and relaunch under G.communication. She had heard the oft-repeated mantra that Japan was one of the safest places in the world. For Elizabeth, however, life in Japan was anything but safe.

The company had housed her in a men’s hostel in Osaka. On her first day in Japan, a man grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. She spoke no Japanese at the time, and could only understand one word he said: “hotel.” She eventually managed to break his grip and escape.

The harassment and assaults came on an almost daily basis — in the elevator, on the street and on the train. Strange men would ask for her panties — or simply climb up to her second-floor balcony and remove them from her drying rack. Men constantly approached her and asked her to accompany them to hotels; with her long, blond hair, they would assume she was a Russian prostitute, even after she attempted to convince them otherwise. Being molested on the train was a common occurrence — as it is for many women in Japan — and on one evening a man masturbated on the seat in front of her.

Her work at Nova offered no respite. She was assigned to work an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, providing lessons over the Internet. Men would engage in behavior ranging from taking her photograph to masturbating on live camera. Her complaints to her managers — both Western men — went unheeded. They were clients and they could do what they like, they would say.

On her way to work, a man on the train stuck his hand up her skirt and molested her. She had reached her breaking point. She arrived at her office in tears and told her managers of the assault.

“That’s going to happen a lot to you here,” one of them said, laughing. “You’d better get used to it.”

She had never in her life suffered the level of harassment and humiliation she experienced in those four weeks.

“I never felt so pimped out as I did at Nova,” she says. “The whole system was geared to put white women on show.”