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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

All of the women interviewed for this story said they had no higher authority to turn to for help after being harassed by their bosses.

Weak laws and what attorneys call a built-in bias in the legal system contribute to the problem. Although Japan now has a sexual harassment law, activists say the burden of proof is nearly impossible to meet.

"In sexual harassment cases, there is great emphasis on intention," says Kaneko, the Tokyo city official who was so scandalized by the problem's scope that he spent a year studying the issue in the United States. In Japan, he says, a man must state that his motive was sexual harassment to be found guilty under the new law.

Most cases that succeed use instead an obscure loophole in the civil code that entitles a woman to have a comfortable working environment.

The first successful case in 1989, in which a woman won $13,000 for sexual slander by her boss and male colleagues, was filed under other civil codes.

It is not known how many cases are filed annually, but it is likely to be a fraction of the thousands filed in the United States. Japan's most prominent feminist attorney, Mizuho Fukushima, says she handles about five cases a year, a figure unchanged over the past six years.

Unlike in the United States, where sexual harassment cases commonly win awards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even when Japanese victims win, they rarely win big. Awards, usually less than $15,000, are typically slashed to half of what plaintiffs request or even less.

Alison Wetherfield, a legal scholar who spent a year comparing Japanese and American sexual harassment laws at Tokyo University, argues that the legal fact-finding process itself is sexist.

In one recent case, a judge found that a woman wearing pantyhose under trousers could not have been raped because undressing her would have been too difficult.

A woman's attitude in court must also be deferential. In a case last year, a woman was awarded only half the money requested because the judge found that her "attitude was one of rebellion."

The lenient legal climate encourages companies to treat the problem with laxity--if at all.

Kyoei Mutual Fire & Marine Insurance Co. produces a video on sexual harassment required for all employees going overseas but has no video for workers at home.

"Sexual harassment cases are not yet a financial liability in Japan," says Taketoshi Kawano of Kyoei's risk management and engineering department. "Sexual harassment victims here don't have many rights, so cases aren't likely to occur."

Without legal incentives, few companies actively seek to change company behavior. In a country where proverbs advise people to "put a lid on smelly things," companies resist surveys and resolve complaints quickly and quietly--usually by firing the woman in question, or through bullying and spreading rumors to smear her reputation so that she quits, experts say.

Makiko Oba, a reporter at the Asahi Shimbun, a newspaper that prides itself on being a bastion of liberalism, conducted a sexual harassment survey through the company trade union but was prevented from disseminating the results.

Some media bosses have even encouraged women to put up with sexual harassment to get a news scoop. Several female reporters recalled being sent by their bosses to dance with politicians or to visit them late at night to pry information out of them.

Nobuko Usami, a former political reporter in Tokyo, says one spokesman for a political party constantly harassed her and used derogatory comments about her, about his former sexual conquests and about female politicians as humorous conversation during press briefings and private meetings.

Given Japan's cozy fraternity of male politicians and journalists, she tolerated the behavior for the sake of her job.

Despite what reporters say is rampant harassment in the political world, they write nothing about it for fear of offending their sources and losing access to information.

"In the United States, sexual harassment is considered a human rights violation," says Fukushima, the feminist lawyer. "Here, it is considered an issue of manners--a communication gap. It is considered equally the women's fault. This is all done so as not to shock the men."

Some argue that Japanese companies' "soft" approach is more effective in a society that places supreme value on harmony. But it actually undermines the cause by depriving the problem of the gravity it deserves and distracting public attention from weak and insufficient laws, Wetherfield says.

And experts say the current slump has aggravated the sekuhara situation, both because men prefer to hire men in hard times and because they know women will put up with more to secure scarce jobs.

*

Shinsuke Kohiyama, spokesman for the Keidanran, Japan's most powerful economic organization, says businesses needed to hire women in the high-growth "bubble era" of the late 1980s.

"I don't mean to be rude, but we took whomever we could get," he says.

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