Trigger warning: This article mentions first-hand experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and suicidal ideation. If you or a loved one is seeking immediate help, please contact your local crisis hotlines.
SaseboAnon was an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Sasebo, Nagasaki on the JET Program. On March 3rd, 2018, just four months shy of the end of her second year, another JET ALT sexually assaulted her in his home. Two months into her first year in 2016, she had also experienced sexual harassment from her school’s vice principal at a local karaoke spot during a nomikai, a work drinking party.
After her assault in 2018, she pursued legal action against the Board of Education. This was after the JET Prefectural Advisor and other employees urged her not to report her assault to the police and failed to reprimand her assailants. To this day, she continues her legal battle with the Nagasaki Board of Education.
4 years after her assault, on October 31st, 2022, SaseboAnon returned to Japan for the first time since JET. She came back for a court hearing for her lawsuit against the Nagasaki Board of Education. SaseboAnon is suing the Board for 2 million yen (approximately $14,000 USD) for sexual misconduct.
A few days after her trial, SaseboAnon and I met briefly in Tokyo before she returned to the US.
Both of us had been members of the JET Program. We didn’t work in the same prefecture (I was a JET ALT several prefectures away in Shizuoka from 2014-2019). But although this was our first time meeting face-to-face, we had known each other for quite a long time.
I had been in contact with SaseboAnon since March 5th, 2018, two days after her assault. A mutual JET acquaintance based in Nagasaki had reached out to me for advice on filing police reports in Japan. They had first contacted their ALT PA (“Prefectural Advisor”, a JET – and sometimes also a Japanese staff member – who acts as a liaison between ALTs and their respective Board of Education/schools). The PA refused to offer any support or guidance on filing.
In 2017-2018, I surveyed 374 ALTs and interviewed 42 of them about harassment in Japan. Unfortunately, I found that SaseboAnon’s case was far from unique. To me, these cases are not merely data points or outliers. Rather, they are indicative of an endemic issue in the Japanese school system, which disproportionally targets women and femme-presenting ALTs.
As a woman who participated in the JET Program, it seemed almost everyone I knew who has ever worked in a school, let alone in Japan, had experienced some degree of sexual assault and/or harassment. If not, they knew at least one person who did. And those in authority have silenced many of us. For a lot of us, speaking up adds an element of risk to our employment and livelihood in Japan.
My fond memories of JET outweighed the traumatic events to an extent. We have a sense of community whenever we run into alumni or current JET participants. After all, it was my connection to JET that led me to encounter SaseboAnon and help advocate with her.
However, year after year, we hear of cases like hers. It raises the question of why the stakeholders of a selective intergovernmental program with a 35-year legacy can’t comply with the law or ensure the safety of their employees.
Before diving into the case at large, I asked SaseboAnon about how she originally discovered the JET Program.
Why did you join the JET Program?
Like most JET applicants, SaseboAnon was an undergrad in university. She completed a competitive and intensive language program in China through Fulbright and a high school exchange program in Spain, and is trilingual (English, Chinese, and Spanish). As an aspiring JET, she wanted to experience Japanese culture and embrace the challenges that came from living abroad without a host family.
“I benefited so much from the people around me when I lived in China, and I wanted to serve those who helped me in return. Originally I chose the JET Program over another Fulbright program [to start after graduating university] to be more independent, without a host family…one of my professors used to be a JET in Saga and recommended it to me. I also had the impression that Japan was a very safe country, so this was an additional reason why I applied.”
While many applicants (including myself) preferred urban and suburban placements, SaseboAnon was open to rural placements. The skyrises of Tokyo often overshadow the countryside. But she wanted to see an oft-underrepresented side of Japan.
“When Americans think of Nagasaki, they tend to only know about the bombings and WWII. I was excited to go there because I’d get to see Nagasaki outside of the American perspective.”
JET has a reputation as a highly selective and reputable intercultural exchange program. Its legacy is comparable to programs offered by organizations such as Fulbright or Rotary International. Applicants see JET as a gateway to experience Japanese culture or explore new opportunities before deciding on a career path.
“I have a background in arts administration and part of it includes introducing art and culture to an audience. Teaching is a big part of that. My professor, a former Saga JET, recommended that I should stay for two years. The first year is all about figuring things out, and the second year is for fully experiencing Japan.”
Job Training for The JET Program
Fast-forward to a few months later. After her acceptance, SaseboAnon started attending meetups with her consulate and the pre-departure orientation before leaving the country. I asked if there was any HR training or official advice about harassment during these sessions.
“The Chicago consulate and local JET Alumni Association (JETAA) were really active. We did meetups at Mitsuwa and Panera. They trained us on how to do team-teaching. They told us to wear a suit, bringing things like omiyage and tracksuits. At my pre-departure orientation, they told us that we could join JET Ladies+ (a private Facebook group for women and non-binary people who live in Japan).”
After departing from their home countries, JET ALTs and CIRs spend 3 days at Tokyo’s Keio Plaza Hotel for orientation. That’s followed by a welcoming ceremony before they travel to their placements. “At Keio Orientation there was no rundown of sexual harassment at all. I remembered that we had a bowing class, though.”
JETs also undergo another orientation in their assigned prefectures. However, there was also a lack of discussion about sexual harassment there.
“In Nagasaki, there was no HR training either. They only trained us on how to team-teach and how to handle a typhoon. They split safety lessons by gender, too. Again, they just told us to go to Facebook groups for help.
“At the Q&A, someone asked about Airdre Mattner, a JET who was drugged and raped while traveling abroad. The organizers glossed over it, which was weird. I thought, ‘I don’t speak Japanese. What would happen to me?’”
Life in Nagasaki
“I remember the very first self-introduction lesson I gave to my high school students,” SaseboAnon reminisced. “I introduced myself to them in three languages: Chinese, Spanish, and English. My students had never really met a trilingual person before, and I wanted to show them what they could do. I had never seen them so relieved to hear English until I started speaking in other languages! (laughs)”
When JETs first enter the program as ALTs, they often face hurdles in team teaching and motivating the students to learn English. For SaseboAnon, it was just the reality of being a teacher.
“The students weren’t really into learning English, but that didn’t deflate me. It was something that was more realistic and grounding. My role as an ALT wasn’t as flashy as a white foreigner. But I know I helped them even if they didn’t necessarily like English. The JET Program is over 30 years old, which means at least 3 generations of students have gotten into this cycle. The idea of having an ALT isn’t too new to them. One of my students told me that they wanted to be trilingual like me after my self-introduction. That’s how I knew I made some sort of a difference.
“It doesn’t really matter what you teach. What you are as a person is what the students will remember.”
SaseboAnon also bonded with the teachers at the special needs school that she visited while on the JET Program. “My JTEs and I often went on trips together. One of them also gave me my very first kimono, which was passed down from her relatives. I felt included in a lot of things.”
But things took a dark turn on October 16th, 2016, two months into her term on JET. SaseboAnon’s vice principal of her special needs school sexually harassed her on the day of their school festival. While performing karaoke at the afterparty, he brought his face extremely close to hers as he sang. When he finished singing, he asked her, “Do you want to come home with me?”
“It was weird to process,” SaseboAnon reflected. “You always hear about harassment but you never really know how to expect it to be…no one ever feels prepared.”
Confronting sexual harassment as a JET
After the incident, SaseboAnon reached out to the senpais in her JET community for advice. However, the response she received was far from encouraging.
“Some people said that I was overreacting. A senpai told me that I should ‘keep the harmony’ in the work environment. He said my office would turn on me if I said anything. So at first, I didn’t advocate for myself. I don’t blame my senpai, though. He was just being honest and in the end, my school did in fact turn on me.”
One senpai in particular motivated SaseboAnon to pursue justice: her predecessor, who had substantial experience teaching in the US.
“My predecessor encouraged me to report what happened and said that in the states, this is a reportable offense. She helped me so much. If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t have ever reported it. And I would have regretted not reporting it.”
SaseboAnon first reported the harassment to her supervisor. She asked SaseboAnon to provide updates if the vice principal continued to harass her. She also told SaseboAnon to stay away from the principal during office parties.
“It seemed that it would be handled on the backend. That there were processes that would be followed. That was a big assumption from me on my part. Nothing was actually done to ensure that [the vice principal] knew what he did was harmful and that he would actually face consequences.”
An official from the Nagasaki Prefectural Board of Education then visited the school. However, it seemed that the report had backfired and SaseboAnon experienced retaliation from her coworkers.
“It went south on my end with my school because I went over [my supervisor’s] head. The main issue was me and this soured my relationship with my school. I don’t know how the BOE phrased my situation to them but everyone started to look down on me. Nobody would talk to me and I didn’t have a good relationship with my supervisor.
“I’m not happy with the way my supervisor handled it but I don’t necessarily blame her. She’s also at the mercy of the system. If this HR process doesn’t exist with Japanese employees, what’s there for us foreigners?”
SaseboAnon later requested a transfer to another school but was denied. The JET Program only grants transfer and relocation requests for participants who are getting married or have medical conditions (physical health only). The Board of Education also falsely claimed that there were no schools with openings or swap opportunities.
Sexual assault from another JET
On March 3rd, 2018, a fellow JET ALT sexually assaulted SaseboAnon. He was her senpai, a popular 4th-year JET from London who spoke conversational Japanese. This person was quite amicable with everyone in the community – the life of the party. Others trusted him as a mentor for newcomers. “I knew him since I first arrived in Japan. I always had fun talking to him.”
Earlier that day, SaseboAnon and her assailant were preparing a song to perform at their upcoming English Camp. After lunch, they headed to his apartment to practice. “[Going to his apartment] wasn’t alarming to me. I had hung out with guy friends in their apartments before.”
Trigger warning: The following is an explicit and graphic description of SaseboAnon’s sexual assault. To continue with the aftermath of this incident, you may skip ahead to the next section: Reporting the assault: “Don’t go to the police”
After SaseboAnon and her assailant practiced their song, they hugged to say goodbye.
The assailant aimed at her neck and asked, “Does your dog kiss you like this? Does your dog bite you like this?” He first bit her neck and then proceeded to move upwards in an attempt to kiss her lips. SaseboAnon turned her face away and was in a state of shock. Her assailant persisted and said, “I still want to do what I want with you,” picked her up, and carried her to his room. She feared he was going to rape her.
He then pinned her down on his bed and attempted to forcefully kiss her lips and her neck. SaseboAnon desperately pleaded to her assailant to stop and reminded him that she had a partner. He replied, “I know, but let’s just forget about it for now.” She managed to push him off, collect her belongings, and escape.
Mentally, she was still held captive. “I left his apartment shaking. I kept looking behind myself the whole route back to Sasebo Train Station. He mentioned that he would head out after me and I was afraid that he would follow me.
“In my head I kept thinking:
“Why did I mention that I had a leg injury right before it happened?
“Did I not talk about my long-distance relationship enough during lunch?
“How can I explain what happened to the police? My Japanese isn’t good enough.
“Why did my friend do this to me? I thought he was my friend…”
Reporting the assault: “Don’t go to the police”
SaseboAnon wanted to report her assault to the police but experienced pushback from Nagasaki Board of Education. Her supervisor had also worked with her assailant for a long time and had a good rapport.
In her interview with Voice Up Japan, SaseboAnon credited the #MeToo movement and prominent survivors including Shiori Ito for empowering her to advocate for herself. “The movement was growing worldwide at the time. Everyone around the world was discussing the idea that anyone should be allowed to seek justice.
“Many celebrities who spoke up in the MeToo movement had a lot of money and were talking about how difficult it was in their industry. But they also emphasized that everybody, even people who are not famous, should feel like they could report their assault.”
On March 5th, 2018, Two days after the incident, SaseboAnon emailed an official from the Nagasaki Board of Education. She asked for advice on how to seek justice.
Her assailant was a fellow JET ALT under the same Contracting Organization. Despite that, the Nagasaki Board said they couldn’t get involved because the incident did not happen at an official work/JET-related event. This forced SaseboAnon to remain within proximity of her assailant in work events, including the English Camp. That meant overnights for teachers and underage students.
SaseboAnon also reached out to her local consulate’s JET Program office. They suggested that she reach out to one of the Japanese government-affiliated organizations that oversee the JET Program, such as JETAA. They also emphasized that the PA could act as an interpreter between the police and JET participants.
However, the government-affiliated organization stated that they cannot mediate cases such as this assault, as they are not direct employers. The outcome of SaseboAnon’s situation can only depend on her respective Board of Education and the local police. No one else seemed to hold authority over the BOE at large.
That is not to say that this particular organization must be the one to reign above the Board of Education. However, it is alarming that the proverbial ladder ends with them alone. With no additional parties to act as liaisons between BOEs and JET participants, the door is left open for unchecked exploitation and negligence.
SaseboAnon also contacted the US Embassy and British Embassy in Tokyo, along with British police authorities. Her efforts were to no avail. Her assailant was of a different nationality and was a resident of Japan. They maintained that they could not pursue him on her behalf.
“The people on the phone were very sympathetic to my situation. They said that they were sorry that this happened to me but that they couldn’t intervene.”
SaseboAnon was back to square one: the BOE.
After the circular direction of apologetic emails, SaseboAnon contacted her PA to seek help with formally reporting the incident. That also led to a dead end. “She told me to not report my sexual assault to the police, and that the BOE would ‘take care of it’ on their own.” It took several messages for the PA to clearly spell out the procedure.
“I started to feel really suicidal because no one seemed to care. This is awfully common and, well, the sad truth is that my case isn’t special. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s ok.
“Actually, the research I did with Fulbright was about suicide and how historic gender roles played into the suicide rate in China. Historically, women forced into arranged marriages could only get out through suicide, as the matriarchs had no say. It was the only way to protest.”
As her symptoms of PTSD escalated, she continued to reach out for help in the JET community online.
This was when SaseboAnon’s alias was born.
The birth of “SaseboAnon”
SaseboAnon’s original GoFundMe page update in 2020
Spurned by those in authority, SaseboAnon reached out to JET Ladies+. She had left the group so she asked a friend to share her story on her behalf. In the post, she expressed as much as she could without jeopardizing the identities of those involved. She also wrote about her incident on Medium.
“I decided to go by ‘SaseboAnon’ to emphasize the place where my harassment and assault happened. What if this happens to somebody else? They can emphasize the city name and ‘anon’ to show that this isn’t an isolated case.”
After posting her story under this new alias on social media, she mostly received supportive responses from her readers. Many of them reassured her that her assault was a reportable offense and that she should seek justice.
The lawyer, the police, and the lawsuit
The next hurdle was filing the police report and seeking legal counsel. SaseboAnon confided with her professor about her experience. The professor helped her in finding a lawyer and connected her to the Nagasaki Sexual Assault Group.
“There was one English-speaking lawyer I wanted to work with. He was very kind to me and gave me free legal counsel. Unfortunately, he was working with the Nagasaki Prefectural Government on another case. So understandably, he couldn’t represent me due to a conflict of interest. He gave me really good legal advice. He connected me to another lawyer, who saw a need for justice in my case. It was a huge gamble because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese”
SaseboAnon talked with Sasebo police over the phone thanks to a senpai JET in the area who interpreted for her. The lawyer advised her to file a victim’s report and to request a female officer.
JET finally sent a PA to Sasebo to help her file her police report with local authorities. “There were two PAs: the ALT PA and the CIR PA. I don’t believe my ALT PA actually spoke Japanese…the CIR PA told me to go to the police and traveled all the way to Sasebo to assist me.”
Despite having a female police officer who spoke English, police told SaseboAnon that she couldn’t file a victim’s report. She was only able to document an official statement.
“The female officer leaned in and asked me why I was bothering to report him. She said, ‘Do you mind if I ask a personal question? Why are you doing this to him? You know, when we catch someone for shoplifting, we take them in and give them a warning. We give them a warning, so they can think about their actions.’”
The police also refused to file the report. They said SaseboAnon was over the age of consent, had no visible injuries (despite explaining that she had a leg injury and if she defended herself, she would have been trapped in her assailant’s bed), and was leaving Japan in July 2018.
SaseboAnon remained persistent over the years, even after she left the country. “I wanted to file this lawsuit because [the Board of Education] thought that they could shove it under the rug. Leaving the country won’t silence me. They have to deal with it and there’s a lack of seriousness regarding sexual harassment in Japan. I wanted them to take me seriously.”
After SaseboAnon left Japan in July 2018, authorities considered her case closed since she was no longer in the country.
Authorities reopened her case 9 months later in December 2018. NHK, Asahi, and other outlets covered her story. Prominent Japanese politicians and public figures questioned why the Board of Education was incredibly lenient towards her assailant.
Returning to Japan
“There was no obscene act. He [the assailant] is allowed to continue his contract because he has reflected on his actions. His attitude towards public duty is also good. Furthermore, we believe that he does not negatively influence other ALTs or students.”— Nagasaki Board of Education superintendent, in response to Council Representative Horie in December 2018
After authorities reopened her case, SaseboAnon continued to post updates and work with her lawyer oceans away. COVID-19 also slowed down the process. Japan locked their borders and there was a virus with an unpredictable timeline.
SaseboAnon obtained a visa to enter Japan two years into the pandemic. She appeared in court and held a press conference in Nagasaki on October 31st 2022. This was 20 days after the Japanese government announced that the borders would reopen.
“When I came to Nagasaki, I was very anxious about running into my old coworkers. I didn’t want to answer any questions about why I was there while the borders (were presumed to be) closed.”
As she prepared for court, she was surprised to learn that her assailant appeared to have read her police statement. Furthermore, the Nagasaki Board of Education never reprimanded or addressed her assailants at all. The Board said they had handled things internally. But their legal statement confirmed the opposite.
“I assumed that the Board of Education reprimanded them and had them write a written apology. That was a big assumption. They admitted in their legal statement that they didn’t do anything to address my assailants.”
SaseboAnon attended her cross-examination in Nagasaki City. “This was one of the most grueling and emotional processes I have ever done in my life. My lawyer and the defendant’s lawyer questioned me for 4 hours. They went through every detail of the sexual harassment and sexual assault I survived. While it was painful to remember such terrifying experiences, I left the courtroom feeling accomplished and proud for pushing through.”
SaseboAnon’s press conference footage from October 31st, 2022 https://www.fnn.jp/articles/-/438613
News outlets surrounded SaseboAnon as she spoke up about her lawsuit. Over the past few years, journalists in Japan have reached out to her and supported her cause. She would get positive messages from NHK news reporters and podcasters and spread awareness about her case.
“I had lots of therapy to be able to read the documents. When I repeat what happened, I don’t disassociate. But I also don’t stay in an overwhelming emotional state with flashbacks. It’s still difficult to read but I don’t shut down anymore. I can stay calm now. My lawyer and I talked it out and I paced myself.”
The court’s decision is due in late January 2023.
“In Japan, there are no juries. The fate of my lawsuit is up to the judges who listened to my experience.”
Responses from CLAIR and JETAA
SaseboAnon’s case went viral on social media in late 2018-early 2019. A current member of the JET Alumni Association International Board of Advisors, former JETAA USA Country Representative, and former San Francisco JET Program Coordinator Xander Peterson reached out to help.
“I empathized with her frustration of trying to find help and accountability through the available channels but not being able to reach a proper resolution. I wanted to make sure that, at the very least, victims of sexual assault while on JET would have readily available resources available to them to help them navigate the situation afterwards.
“Through those positions I had met the heads of CLAIR a number of times and we had built a good rapport. I already had a trip to Japan planned with friends for that March. So I used that opportunity to stop by the Tokyo CLAIR office and discuss the matter with the local staff. Later in May I reached out to [SaseboAnon] through their GoFundMe. I let them know that I was doing what I could to work with CLAIR on the issue. That’s when we were finally able to connect.”
CLAIR subsequently updated the official General Information Handbook to include emergency phone numbers and resources for each prefecture. They also added a new section that explicitly calls out the reality of these situations. Finally, they created a guide on preventative measures as well as what to do afterward.
CLAIR’s updated sections addressing sexual harassment and assault (via JET Programme official website).
What was your experience like when you approached CLAIR?
“To be honest, I was initially concerned that CLAIR wouldn’t acknowledge the situation, let alone its severity. But the CLAIR staff were incredibly receptive to both me and the issue. They fully understood the issue, both in [SaseboAnon]’s particular instance, as well as with the other sexual assault reports they handle. It’s important to note that CLAIR staff really do care about the program participants. Many of them are JET alumni themselves.
“At the 2019 JETAA International Meeting later that winter I again brought up the subject to all the heads of CLAIR and the three ministries (MEXT, MOFA, and MIC). CLAIR was incredibly supportive and stated on the record their commitment to the issue. They ensured that all of the ministries and parties involved knew that they had to do something.”
What’s the role of CLAIR in the JET Program?
“I know that to some, a list of phone numbers and other resources might not seem sufficient. But I think it’s important to recognize the limitations that CLAIR has to work within. CLAIR neither legislates nor enforces the law. CLAIR primarily acts as the go-between to connect JETs to their Contracting Organizations (COs). It doesn’t have any power over the COs, nor does it have power over individual JETs once they’re here. While CLAIR isn’t able to act as an enforcer, it can and does act in an assisting capacity. CLAIR is great at providing resources and aiding JETs when they can. To that end, I’m very pleased with the new resources from CLAIR.
“Again, CLAIR works to fulfill the request for JETs from COs; COs don’t work for CLAIR. It’s very common (and understandable) that JETs don’t fully understand the larger relationship structures. They’re upset when they realize that CLAIR can’t assist in many situations. I tried my best during my time as the JET Program Coordinator to set proper expectations for all outbound JETs so they would be prepared to handle most situations themselves.
“For the things that CLAIR is able to help with, though, they put in a lot of effort. They often handle very sensitive situations behind the scenes that they can’t speak about. Unfortunately, because they can’t talk about the case-by-case work they do, their good deeds go unspoken. As a result, CLAIR ends up being a scapegoat for a lot of general JET angst.”
It’s a fair assumption for JETs to make, especially if the embassy/consulate/JETAA officials tell them to contact CLAIR. In my 5-year experience in the program at least, I’ve seen a few PAs come and go. The JET Program doesn’t clearly define the selection process and the chain of command to participants.
How are PAs selected and trained? If the PA or the BOE doesn’t want to deal with someone, is there no one to check on them? A JET PA told SaseboAnon not to go to the police and it seems no one did anything about that.
Peterson confirmed that he was unsure about the selection process and training that is provided to PAs. The BOEs, not CLAIR, select them. When I mentioned that large BOEs including the Shizuoka Prefectural Board of Education also have a Japanese PA, he seemed surprised.
That makes me question why there’s no CLAIR-ity (pun intended) on who’s in charge of managing JET participants. PAs have some level of authority over JET ALTs. However, they receive the same salary. The action they could take can depend on their respective supervisors. PAs are overwhelmed with other duties and have no control over directly reprimanding or addressing assailants.
These are institutions with direct control over important matters such as return flight reimbursement, re-contracting, and job transfers. So why does it seem there is no one to ensure that these Boards of Education are actually complying with the JET Program’s policies, let alone the law?
It is important to write clear guidelines to confront cases of sexual harassment and assault. But it is also crucial to enforce them to the stakeholders at large. The guidebook says participants can reach out to supervisors and PAs. But to what extent is this truly feasible in practice?
How could the JET Program address incidents like these in the future to ensure trust between JET participants and their employers/organizations (BOEs, CLAIR, JETAA, AJET, etc.)?
“While I’m really happy about the new GIH resources, our work to improve the safety and security of all JETs is far from over. My next goal was to improve our preventative measures by working with the JET Program Coordinators and JETAA. I wanted to provide outbound JETs with resources on allyship and safe community building. Unfortunately then COVID happened and there were no outbound JETs for a few years.
“Now with JET participants leaving again for Japan, I’d love to see this conversation continue among the JETAA.”