TOKYO — Raelyn Campbell had heard about the safety of Tokyo's streets and the efficiency of its police. Soon after coming to Japan, however, she came in contact with another reality--an expectation that victims of sex crimes remain silent.
Though Japan has seen many advances toward gender equality over the last few decades, experts say women who have been sexually assaulted often face a familiar old problem--a justice system that is unsympathetic and a society that blames the victim.
Campbell experienced those obstacles firsthand. Although she is not Japanese, social workers and activists say her case is typical--except that she insists on justice and is willing to talk about it.
A man followed Campbell to her apartment, threw her against the door and tried to molest her. She fought him off, and the man was arrested.
But when the American woman tried to press charges, police dragged their feet. When the prosecutors took over, they suggested the case be dropped because the attacker--who had confessed--had no prior record and was a source of financial support for his parents. He ended up with a suspended sentence.
"As a general rule in Japan, sex crimes are not dealt with as serious crimes," Campbell says more than a year later.
Because of the stigma of sex crimes, even assessing the situation is extremely difficult, says Kiyomi Takahashi, a counselor for the Japanese Union for Survivors of Trauma, a support center for victims of sex crimes.
"Women victims of sex crimes are considered dirty," says Takahashi, who was sexually abused as a child. "As women, they are considered worthless."
Only 6,124 rapes and sexual assaults were reported in Japan in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available. According to police figures for 1997, there were roughly six such crimes for every 100,000 people 15 years or older.
By comparison, there were roughly two rapes or sexual assaults reported for every 1,000 people 12 or older in the United States in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Supporters of the Japanese justice system say at least part of the statistical gap is due to a genuinely lower incidence rate.
But surveys indicate a high rate of sex-related incidents.
More than 80% of 459 Tokyo women in a survey released last year said they had experienced some sort of sexual assault, ranging from sexually oriented verbal abuse to rape. The survey was conducted by Makiko Sasagawa, a counselor at St. Marianna Medical Institute near Tokyo, and Takako Konishi, a psychiatrist at Tokyo's Musashino Women's University.
Of the various forms of assault, molestation of women on commuter trains may be the most common.
Almost 80% of 1,553 women surveyed by the Tokyo government in 1997 said they had been inappropriately touched on a train at some point in their lives.
The problem is so bad that subway operators have considered making some cars off-limits to all male passengers.
Still, formal complaints are relatively rare.
"There are probably passengers who don't report incidents to station authorities, but simply get off and wait for the next train," says Eiichi Okazaki, a spokesman at the Teito Rapid Transit Authority, the country's largest subway operator.
Many female victims of sexual assault feel they shouldn't call police because it isn't serious enough to make a fuss about, according to a study conducted by John P.J. Dussich and Sugao Shinohara at Tokiwa University.
Women also avoid police because they feel male officers wouldn't understand their pain.
Inspired by similar movements in the United States and Europe, however, activists have recently begun setting up support centers that help victims deal with mental anguish and teach them how to take legal action.
The number of new cases at a counseling center at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University grew from 30 in 1993 to 362 by 1998, says Konishi, who practiced there until last year. Although the center helps victims of any crime, Konishi says more than a third of the cases were related to sexual assault and abuse.
Growing numbers of victims are seeking help through official telephone hotline services.
There were 746 calls to the Tokyo municipal police's hotline for crime victims in 1998, more than seven times the number six years earlier.
"Victims once felt they had to swallow their pain," says Sasagawa, the St. Marianna counselor. "Now many feel psychological recovery is their right."