MeToo: Global Movement or American Fantasy?

Photo courtesy surdumihail

BY RONNIE LI

Japanese student Arika Matsu said the unwanted touching of her breasts at a business meeting two years ago led to her mission to empower women.

Matsui has always dreamed of being a contestant a beauty pageant ever since she was young. A full-time student at Trinity College Dublin, Matsui competed in Japan for Miss Universe during her summer break. Always passionate about enhancing gender equality, Matsui became acquainted with a pageant sponsor, thinking the man’s political connections could help her with her campaign for women’s rights.

She met with the man for a business meeting to discuss her plans. All of a sudden, Matsu said, the man told her that she looked so beautiful and that made him feel good. The next thing she knew, he grabbed her breasts. He told her she didn’t have the standing in society to make an official complaint against his actions.

“I felt stupid the morning after. The man told me he had high social status and high income but I had nothing,” Matsu said. “To fight for gender equality here in Japan, I need power. But to get power, I need to get closer to these elder men.”

Facing this dilemma set by unwritten societal rules in Japan for women, Matsui said she was conflicted: should she stay silent or report the incidence and possibly destroy her childhood dream? She chose the latter.

But was the man right when he said that she had no power? Matsu said that in Japan, the man was probably right – she had no power. Reporting sexual harassment often yields no results in Japan, Matsu said.

Matsui mentioned the parallels between her experience and that of Shiori Itō, a Japanese journalist who sued alleging that Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a TV personality and a friend of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sexually assaulted her.   

Itō alleges that Yamaguchi raped her while she was intoxicated at the time she was an intern at Thomas Reuters in Tokyo. She said the police discouraged her from filing a report and that she was told not to play victim.

Multiple cops interviewed her at the Takanawa police station, she said, including an officer who asked Itō to reenact the rape with “a life-size dummy” while other officers took pictures.

After her charges against Yamaguchi were unexpectedly dropped, Itō began to reach out to reporters, but each one turned her away. Itō ended up speaking about her experience at a press conference. After that,  she received a wave of hate mail and multiple threats. Many people said the rape happened because she was wearing revealing outfit and was intoxicated.

According to a survey from Prefectural labor offices and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 35 percent of women in full-time employment reported being sexually harassed at work. The law doesn’t criminalize sexual harassment but indicates that companies that fail to comply with government guidance will be publicly identified. No company, however, has been cited since 2015.

Paul Kreitman, an assistant professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said that the MeToo movement, as much as it was considered a global movement in the U.S., the movement doesn’t translate to other cultures, like Japan.

“The groundwork for the MeToo movement in the US was laid during the 2016 election, when issues of patriarchy, misogyny and sexual harassment were debated with particular intensity,” said Kreitman. “One might even go so far as to say that the movement has in large part been a backlash to Trump beating Hillary.”

Protestors in the U.S. holding the #MeToo sign to fight for women’s rights // Photo courtesy Alec Perkins is licensed by CC BY 2.0

Nothing like that has happened in Japan, however.  

Kreitman said,  some Japanese institutions have been exposed as blatantly discriminatory against women. For example, Japan’s Tokyo Medical University had been reducing female applicants’ medical exam scores for more than a decade to limit the number of women admitted. The school initially responded by saying that women are more likely to take maternal leaves and potentially cause staff shortages at the school-affiliated hospitals.

The discrimination is still going on until this day, according to a professor at a Japanese language and culture department at a university in New York, as a supervisor appeared to discourage her from taking a maternity leave.

“The head of the department basically gave me an impression that he didn’t want to give me a maternity leave, and that shocked my husband and me.”

The professor also encountered a situation where she was forced by a female colleague to sing in front of everyone during a department gathering because “she has caused trouble to the department.”

“Women have rights to give birth – we are not causing troubles,” she said. “That’s probably a very old Japanese idea that she brought from Japan.” This female colleague she mentioned has been in the States for 30 years.

“That 30 years changed nothing,” she said.

As for Matsui, she is studying sociology and gender at Trinity College Dublin after her experience in Japan.

“I want to change. I want to change the way society thinks of women,” she said.


Ronnie Li is a master’s student at Columbia Journalism School. Born and Raised in Beijing, she is passionate about reporting on social justice issues, especially on immigration issues as well as racial and gender inequalities.

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