Around the world, women struggle with sexual and moral harassment in virtually every occupation. Japan is no exception. We’ve written before about how women report harassment, not just in Japanese workplaces, but even during the interview process. Some women have also spoken out about the sexual harassment they’ve faced in traditional occupations, such as Japan’s geisha world.
Now, several women – and even men – are speaking out about sexual and power harassment in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). One woman has gone public, not only about the sexual harassment she’s faced, but about the harassment she also endured after.
In the SDF, women are few and far between
Japan doesn’t have a standing army. This was a provision built by the Western Allied forces into Japan’s Constitution during post-World War II reconstruction.
Japan created the SDF in 1954 to provide limited national defense capabilities. The SDF protects Japan’s borders, assists in national emergencies, and participates in defense and peacekeeping efforts abroad.
The SDF has been and remains overwhelmingly male. However, that’s slowly changing. Japan’s Ministry of Defense has stepped up recruitment efforts to bring more women into the fold.
The MOD gives several reasons for this. One is to increase the “diversity of skills” available with the SDF. However, another more pressing reason is numbers. Japan’s aging and dwindling population means that it’s harder to recruit anyone into the SDF.
Despite its efforts, there are as of 2021 only 18,000 women in the SDF – a mere 7.9% of the force’s total members. At current recruitment rates, the MOD projects it can raise that number to 12% by 2030.
In other words, women are a clear minority in the SDF – and will remain so for quite some time.
The breaking point
Of course, it’s hard to recruit members into an organization if women perceive it as a cesspool of male chauvinism and sexual assault. A recent incident reveals how much work the SDF faces in creating a safe working environment for all recruits.
Gonoi Rina is a 22-year-old former member of the SDF. She served two years up until resigning in June after what she describes as daily, ongoing sexual harassment.
“Being hugged or having my shoulders grabbed was normal….it gradually left me feeling soiled in body and spirit,” she told TV station NTV.
The last straw came when a servicemember put her in a chokehold, tackled her, and pretended to have sexual intercourse while perched over her. Gonoi quit and retreated to her childhood home. Her mother took her out to karaoke, where she broke down in tears.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” her mother told reporters. “She started crying and I’d never seen her cry. I didn’t know what to do.”
No prosecutions – but an apology
In August of 2021, Gonoi left her station in Fukushima Prefecture. She reported her allegations, which sparked an SDF investigation.
Three servicemembers involved in the incident were arrested. However, in May, prosecutors announced that they wouldn’t press charges because no one had witnessed the allegedly sexual behavior. Gonoi says that’s garbage. “Multiple people witnessed it, but there’s no proof. Why would they be laughing if they’d just tackled me? If nothing had happened after that they wouldn’t be laughing.”.
Driven to thoughts of suicide, Gonoi left the SDF completely in June 2022. But she didn’t stop fighting. Instead, she filed an appeal with the SDF. Last month, the SDF confirmed the truth of the assault and issued a full apology. At a press conference, Japan’s Defense Minister and SDF brass took the rare step of publicly apologizing to her.
Harassment also reported by others
The public apology makes sense given what happened after Gonoi filed her report. The SDF didn’t just investigate what happened to her; they reached wider to see if other servicemembers have had similar experiences.
What they found was disturbing.
In a survey sent to servicemembers, 146 responded with reports of some form of harassment. A female soldier reported how other members touched her while she was resting. Another woman said she was slapped in the face after refusing to take off some clothes during a baseball game. And a male soldier talked about how his comrades forced him to strip naked and dance during a night out.
Official statistics show these complaints aren’t just one-offs. Reports of harassment have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2016, the Defense Ministry recorded 256 reported cases of harassment. By 2021, that number had exploded to 2,311.
The investigation revealed six more cases of serious harassment that the Defense Ministry is still investigating. It’s the first large-scale harassment investigation the Ministry has ever launched.
The second harassment
Unfortunately, her assault wasn’t the last indecency Gonoi would be forced to endure.
Ever since the apology, Gonoi’s been the subject of online slander. Netizens accuse her of “forcing” the Ministry of Defense to issue an apology. Some commenters are unmasked in their blatant sexism, with one saying, “It’s weird for women to be in the SDF.” (Remember, folks, the SDF is explicitly recruiting female candidates.)
Gonoi says she can’t sleep, is losing weight, and is suffering from stress-related symptoms. “I wonder if there’ll come a day when I’ll be truly happy. I have flashbacks about it which is to be expected. But there are times I think I’ll live with this damage for the rest of my life and it riddles me with anxiety.”
The suicide of wrestler Kimura Hana, who was beset by online abuse over her appearances in the now-defunct Netflix show Terrace House, brought to light the severity of online harassment in Japan. Sadly, despite multiple initiatives to create a less hostile online environment and even some high-profile lawsuits, not much has changed since then.
TBS News Dig interviewed multiple other former SDF members who also say they suffered harassment during their tenure. One woman, A, says she suffered repeated power harassment from her commander. She showed reporters her glasses, which broke after he punched her between the eyes.
A reported the multiple assaults on her to the SDF. Her complaints were ignored.
When she ultimately tried to quit after repeated physical abuse, her commander grabbed her by the lapel, screamed at her, and threw her against the wall.
A recorded this incident and played the audio for TBS. When TBS confronted the commander, he refused to comment and claimed he didn’t remember anything about the incidents. A few days later, however, someone from the SDF contacted A and assured her an apology would be coming shortly. It was the first time in 4 years that A says she’d heard any mention of an apology.
When asked how she feels about that, A says she feels a sense of relief. But she also has strong words for the SDF and the Ministry of Defense. “As an organ of the nation, it’s damaged. I feel nothing towards them but a sense of quiet disappointment.”
 女性の活躍推進のための改革. Japan Ministry of Defense
 【“性被害”訴え】元自衛官の女性…「どんどん心と体が…」 防衛省が“調査”実施発表. YouTube
 「心と体 汚されていく」「逃げ場がない」 自衛隊ハラスメントの実態【報道特集】. TBS News Dig
 【前編】テント内で男性隊員に囲まれて受けた屈辱的な行為とは. President Online
 【防衛省が謝罪】女性自衛官への“日常的セクハラ”認め 「口止め」も公表. YouTube