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Japan Heeds Rape Cases --if Accused Is American

Asia: Allegations against a local man 'wouldn't have gotten the time of day,' some lawyers say.

July 19, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The alleged rape of a Japanese woman by a U.S. airman has rattled the top levels of government in Washington and Tokyo, even though little is known about what actually occurred in the parking lot of an Okinawa club three weeks ago.

But one thing is clear, say lawyers who specialize in sexual assault and harassment cases in Japan: Had it not involved a serviceman posted in Okinawa, home to nearly half the 53,000 U.S. troops in Japan, where crime, noise and traffic incidents upset the locals plenty, the case would probably have gotten little attention here. The accuser might have had a hard time getting the police and courts to even consider her case, these lawyers say.

"If it had been anywhere else in Japan and committed by a Japanese man, it wouldn't have gotten the time of day," said Noriko Ishida, vice president of the Osaka Bar Assn.

Cases in which the accused claims a consensual relationship with the complainant rarely lead to convictions in Japan, the attorneys say.

Even the terms that Japanese police use to discuss the crime are euphemized to protect the rights of the accused, as well as the victim's reputation. In the case of Timothy B. Woodland, the Air Force staff sergeant who was turned over to Japanese authorities and arrested two weeks ago, police initially said that he is charged with fujo boko, which means simply "violence or assault against a woman."

Fujo boko, which is widely inferred by the public to mean rape, is not a crime in the Japanese penal code, lawyers say, and the term could include everything from injury to molestation to attempted rape to sodomy. An Okinawa police spokesman would say only that the suspect "pushed the victim on the car and gave her violent behavior."

Not until Wednesday did Japanese prosecutors confirm that Woodland actually is charged with rape, gokan, a term that Ishida says is generally considered too harsh and shameful for general consumption.

Japanese prosecutors indicted Woodland today.

Woodland's attorney, Annette Eddie-Callagain, said Wednesday that defense attorneys have not been informed of the details of the prosecution's case against Woodland. "The prosecutors are trying to perfect their case," she said.

She said that what took place in the club's parking lot about 2 a.m. June 29 was consensual, and that there was no force whatsoever.

The incident in Okinawa occurred on the eve of a Camp David summit between President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Bush expressed U.S. "regret" for the actions of some American service members on the island and pledged to "do whatever we could" to prevent crimes by U.S. military personnel.

Though bilateral agreements governing the presence of U.S. forces here call for Japan to indict an accused soldier before he is surrendered, Woodland was turned over on July 6 because of the nature of the alleged crime and because "we have satisfied ourselves that our U.S. service member will receive fair and humane treatment" in the Japanese judicial system, the State Department said.

In cases that fit the Japanese police's "image" of a rape--by a stranger, with evidence of violence or threat--justice is often done, says attorney Yukiko Tsunoda. But under blurrier circumstances--alleged date rapes, for example, or cases in which victim and accused leave a bar together--the defendant is usually exonerated if he contends that the act was consensual and there is no witness or strong evidence to prove otherwise, she says.

The frequency of rape is on the rise, Tsunoda says. In the 12 months that ended March 31, 1,857 rapes were reported in Japan and about 1,300 suspects arrested. How many were indicted isn't clear. But fewer than 10% of victims report the crime, she says, citing government studies.

Perhaps with good reason. Not only are the charges extremely difficult to prove in a Japanese court, but rape victims suffer a huge stigma--they are viewed as kizumono, damaged goods. And the victim is usually put on trial, as happened often in the U.S. before rape-shield laws disallowing evidence about an accuser's sexual past were enacted.

Victims Subjected to 'Unbearable' Questions

Here, an accuser is often subjected to what attorney Ishida describes as "unbearable" questioning: Why didn't she do more to resist? How might she have encouraged the attack? How many times does she have sex each week? How many sexual partners has she had? If the number is high, her word is often discounted.

In one case Tsunoda handled, a rape suspect was exonerated after the accuser was revealed to be a divorcee. In another, a woman presented her torn underwear as evidence against her accused rapist, an art professor who was also her colleague. The judge wrote in his ruling that, had a rape actually occurred, the tear would have been much bigger.

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