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COLUMN ONE : In Japan, Many Men Just Don't Get It : Nation only got word for sexual harassment after '89 court case. Weak laws, recession make fighting abuse difficult. Some say problem is getting worse.

October 13, 1995|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Before Japan knew the term sexual harassment , Yuko Watanabe put up with her boss's back-room maulings as part of the job. The Tokyo hotel executive would call Watanabe, then a 20-year-old information guide, to the VIP lounge, throw her on the couch, cover her with kisses and laugh as she struggled.

Three years later, in 1989, the nation's first sexual harassment case hit the courts, sparking widespread media coverage that finally gave this age-old problem a name: sekuhara.

But despite the public campaigns the case prompted and the deluge of educational materials produced, experts say the problem appears to have intensified. Incidents range from men groping women on crowded commuter trains, to political bosses making journalists the target of sexual jokes, to company recruiters asking college students their bra size during interviews.

Masaomi Kaneko, a Tokyo city official, says little progress appears to have been made since he opened a hot line for female workers in 1989--and was astounded at what he found.

"There was sexual harassment everywhere. There were also lots of office rapes," he says. "I learned from these interviews that the people doing these things were not unusual men. They were normal men who loved their wives and children."

The staggering scope of the problem has only recently come to light. New studies show as many as three-fourths of women in Japan report having been sexually harassed, compared to about half in the United States.

Experts say Japan's economic slump has made things worse by silencing women who fear for their jobs and emboldening men who exploit this vulnerability.

And law enforcement, courts and corporations prefer to cloak the problem in euphemisms, calling office rape "love in the workplace" and sexual harassment a "communication gap," attorneys say. They add that legal standards to win a case under sexual harassment laws are difficult to meet--and that society strongly discourages lawsuits anyway.

Most corporations dismiss the problem as insignificant. The Ministry of Labor has produced pamphlets to raise awareness about sexual harassment since 1992 but does not distribute them to companies.

Nude calendars have come off most office walls, and women say the publicity given to the issue has helped them realize harassment is not their fault.

But, experts say, this has not led to a transformation in public attitudes or behavior in a society that has traditionally expected women to serve men and brighten the workplace as "office flowers."

"For me there is no difference between an office and a nightclub," says Toshinori Okubo, a securities-firm executive in Tokyo. "All Japanese companies prefer beauty rather than the capability of women. In interviews they ask, 'How large are your breasts?'

"This is unbelievable in the United States, but almost all 55- to 60-year-olds think this way," he says.

*

Popular culture trivializes the problem with such articles as "I Love Sexual Harassment," a 140-part tabloid series supposedly based on women titillated by erotic office experiences. A veteran subway mauler penned one of this year's runaway bestsellers: "Diary of a Molester."

Despite groundbreaking anti-discrimination legislation in the late 1980s, enforcement is weak, and public and private organizations have been reluctant to offend men.

A campaign in Osaka prefecture attempts to combat sexual abuse on trains. Announcements had cautioned riders, "Let's refrain from acts of nuisance."

But the campaign--kept low-key because many passengers are men and "it would hurt their feelings," a train official said--was ineffective. Osaka officials strengthened efforts and began hanging "Molestation is a crime" posters in trains in July.

A Shimane University study this year at four college campuses also showed the problem's pervasiveness. It found that 89% of the respondents had been sexually harassed and more than one-third suffered ensuing mental problems.

What's more, a survey by Osaka's Independent Feminine Lifecycle Research Institute showed that about a third of Japanese women were victims of sexual abuse as children.

Despite the startling data, experts say few changes have been made because of powerful social taboos on the subject.

Rigid traditional gender roles leave women feeling socially isolated, deeply ashamed over sexual incidents and worried about being branded hysterical if they react emotionally to unwanted shoulder massages or nude figures on computer screen-savers.

Watanabe says she did not report her boss's back-room fumblings to her father, a police officer, because she would rather die than discuss anything of a sexual nature with him.

The subordinate position of women in most Japanese offices also discourages them from speaking out. A just-released United Nations study shows that Japan ranks 27th in the world in women's vocational status overall, and 81st in the number of women in management.

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