Caroline Norma & Emma Dalton (RMIT University, Australia)
Take a train four hours out of Tokyo and you’ll find yourself in a world where democracy hangs by a thread. Japan remains a feudal place outside its urban centres, at least for women. A popular 2019 book asked whether Japan could be called a ‘democracy’ with women’s political participation so weak. In that year, women occupied only 17 percent of seats in large municipal assemblies, 14 percent in smaller city assemblies, 10 percent in prefectural assemblies, and 9.9 percent in town and village assemblies. Of these town and village assemblies, 33 percent by 2018 had never seen a female councillor. Seventy years after America’s supposedly post-war democratising occupation, Japan’s countryside remains a pre-war place for its female inhabitants.
Even the formal, tokenistic gains of liberal feminism barely register in rural areas where all-male rule is common, and enforced. One means of enforcement is sexual violence, and women facing this kind of undemocratic exercise of power have few places to turn. Unlike Japan’s corporate sector or the public service, councils have no internal mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment or assault—rare cases that see the light of day get an ad hoc administrative response. The arbitrariness of this situation leaves sole women councillors especially unprotected.
An example of the effectiveness of sexual violence in securing male dominance in politics has been playing out in one of Japan’s oldest and well-known hot-springs resort towns since 2015. In January that year, the town mayor sexually assaulted the town’s first and only female councillor, Shouko Arai (新井祥子), in his town hall office after she had booked an appointment with him to speak about a constituent. He had a history of similar offences against staffers of the council but Arai is his first and only victim to speak out.
She is a native of Gunma prefecture where Kusatsu is located, but is not from the town itself. The town itself hosts a population of only 6200 residents, but this population caters to a yearly tourist influx of 3.26 million visitors. Its only industry is tourism, and its residents are wholly employed within it. Arai first ran for election to its council in 2011 out of gratitude to the town after having visited Kusatsu’s hot springs over years to treat her chronic eczema. Councils in Japan provide only meagre salaries to elected officials, and struggle to attract candidates, especially those younger than retirement age. Arai was, therefore, from the outset, an outsider in a place where businesses were connected to the mayor and his councillors, and residents employed by them.
She was elected to Kusatsu council for a second term in April 2019 following a 4-year hiatus after failing to be re-elected on her second attempt. The mayor opposed her candidacy, and actively tried to obstruct her re-election. Upon re-joining the council, moreover, she was alarmed to see that, in her absence, and in the years since the assault about which she had stayed silent, the mayor’s power had increased, and harassment and bullying by him and others, as she had experienced firsthand, had worsened. Arai realised she could no longer stay silent and felt compelled to speak up about her own assault of four years prior. She was also motivated by regret about instances of sexual harassment she had witnessed against female town hall staffers during her first term, over which she had remained silent. One incident involved a young new recruit’s looks being commented upon in a town council common room, and the suggestion being made that graduate interviews should all incorporate a ‘bikini’ swimsuit test.
In December 2019, Arai was voted off the council by nine of its ten male members. This was only the third such expulsion in the 30-year-history of any of Gunma prefecture’s representative bodies. The vote took place after writer and journalist Iizuka Reiji published an e-book in five parts that exposed governance problems plaguing Kusatsu, including details of Arai’s sexual assault, in November 2019. In the council chamber, the mayor invited Arai to read a pre-selected passage from the e-book that described her sexual assault, and then testify that it was true. Upon so doing, Arai was called a liar and voted off the council for ‘bringing the mayor’s name into disrepute’ and for ‘injuring the dignity of the council’. Arai’s only supporter in the council, Yasuji Nakazawa, on the same day brought a motion of no confidence against the mayor, but this was voted down, and Nakazawa himself was then subject to a disciplinary vote that required him to later read a pre-prepared apology in the chamber.
The council vote against Arai was brought also because she had earlier that month held a press conference in response to newspaper reports of the mayor’s decision to bring civil action against her and the e-book’s author for defamation. This civil suit sought 44 million yen (roughly USD400,000) in damages against the pair. Nakazawa was later added as a defendant for his comments on the mayor’s conduct in the council chamber, and the amount sought rose to 50 million yen. The council punishments against both Arai and Nakazawa were overturned, though, a few months later by the Gunma prefectural government, even if the governor himself expressed disbelief in Arai’s accusations against the mayor who he described as a friend. In contrast, after her reinstatement to the council, Arai confirmed to journalists her commitment to working on behalf of Kusatsu residents and for the rights of women.
Kusatsu council members did not accept her reinstatement, however, and nine of them (including a Japan Communist Party elected representative) launched a petition for resident signatures to initiate a plebiscite to force her removal, which would override the governor’s decision. According to Japan’s local government administration law, such plebiscites first require petitions attracting one-third of eligible voter signatures to pass, and then the plebiscites themselves require a majority vote. This is an administrative process introduced in Japan after the end of the Second World War for the purpose of ‘fostering the development of local self-government by ensuring its operation according to the will of the people, with monitoring by the people who determine its oversight’. It is an important mechanism that allows citizens to make decisions on their own initiative. In the case of the plebiscite against Arai, however, rather than local residents, it was the mayor and his councillors who initiated the process. While there are around 5400 eligible voters in Kusatsu, many of these residents are employees of the mayor or suppliers to his business, so Arai was doubtful about their capacity to refuse to sign.
Indeed, it was announced on 16 October 2020 that the petition had attracted 3180 valid signatures, which was greater than the one-third required to launch a plebiscite. So, a vote to remove Arai from the council is now scheduled for 6 December. In response, she has launched a bilingual Japanese/English online petition to rally support for a no-vote. In the meantime, though, Arai continues to be harassed and maligned in her job by people such as the mayor, including in the form of expulsions from the council chamber, court hearings, appearances at credentials review committees, spy-cam filming, provisional reductions of her councillor salary, and slanderous flyer drops. Her qualification as an elected official is being investigated by a council committee, which takes aim at her status as an ‘outsider’ councillor to question her commitment to Kusatsu locals and to challenge her residency status, which is a requirement for holding office.
One of the slanderous flyers from October 2020, as below, entreats Arai to act like Ito Shiori if her claims of sexual assault are true. Ito is perhaps Japan’s highest-profile sexual assault victim, and one of the country’s few victims, along with Arai, to have spoken out publicly under her real name. The flyer praises Ito as a real victim in order to suggest that Arai is not. It emphasises Ito’s good looks and proper deportment in legally pursuing her attacker, in supposed contrast to Arai. The flyer repeatedly calls on Arai to bring criminal charges against the mayor if her allegations are true, but this is an ironic appeal given Ito’s spectacular failure to see her own perpetrator prosecuted in Japan’s criminal courts, even after a judicial review was conducted into her case. The flyer extraordinarily distorts the campaign for justice for sexual assault survivors that Ito and her supporters have waged over the past four years. This campaign, pursued through monthly ‘flower’ rallies, calls on bystanders and allies to act in solidarity with survivors through believing their disclosures and assisting their efforts towards justice and recovery.
Members of the Alliance of Feminist Representatives, which is a group of women politicians who support female candidates, have acted in solidarity with Arai, and she, in turn, has joined their protest actions against other incidents of misogyny in Japanese society. One of these actions has involved, since July 2020, monthly protests held in inner-city Tokyo against pro-prostitution comments made by a popular television celebrity. The protests, along with study-seminars held immediately after, aim to encourage public discussion about prostitution-tolerant attitudes in Japanese society that are allowing the trafficking of young, impoverished women from the countryside into Tokyo’s sex industry.
Arai’s attendance at one of the protests, however, became fodder for council members to criticise her. At a second press conference held in October 2020 (see photo below), Arai played a secretly recorded audio conversation between the mayor and his staffers in the town council building in which comments were made about photos posted to social media showing Arai’s participation in one of the protest events. In the recorded comments, the nature of the event (against prostitution) was judged inappropriate for attendance by a town councillor, and Arai’s wearing of red-coloured clothing (as event organisers had asked participants to wear something red) was criticised as indicative of the left-wing politics of the event and Arai herself. The recording showed the hostility of the climate in which Arai is working as a councillor while her colleagues rally to oust her—the men captured in its conversation were wholly intent on exchanging derogatory views of her appearance and deportment.
Business interests also underpin some of the attacks on Arai. These interests early arose as a source of conflict between Arai and the mayor when she objected to plans to abolish the town’s two traditional free medicinal hot springs practitioner roles (one male, one female) who operate as part of a 140-year tradition in Kusatsu for people visiting the baths not as tourists but as people seeking cure for ailments. This traditional yuchou (湯長 ‘hot-springs master’) system involves recruiting people from outside Kusatsu who have been cured by the town’s waters after commuting to them over years. They are then employed to provide free treatment to similar medical tourists. The mayor planned to dismantle this system on the excuse that yuchou are amateurs providing advice that should come from medical professionals. But Arai and her yuchou supporters opposed the plan as reflecting the mayor’s xenophobic approach to outsiders and continuing drive to create commercial opportunities for local operators. (Non-resident business owners in Kusatsu are required to pay town taxes three-times higher than those of locals.) Later, the mayor suggested the allegations of assault against him were concocted to stifle this plan to abolish the yuchou.
The mayor’s business connections reflect a broader trend across Japanese rural councils, which are dominated by elected officials affiliated (usually unofficially) with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). These local councillors operate as pipelines to the central government through the support of the LDP, which is Japan’s long-serving conservative government party that prioritises business interests. The corruption and pork-barrelling of this system is so deeply and firmly embedded that only outsiders think to challenge it. But vociferous backlash awaits those who do. Arai’s intrusion into this political system as an outsider, and her speaking up as a sexually violated woman, peeled back the civilised veneer of Kusatsu council to reveal unfettered misogyny and undemocratic governance.
Arai is an unusually brave victim in Japan where most women do not step forward to complain about sexual assault, let alone publicly under their own names. Ito Shiori, whose speaking out caused shockwaves throughout Japan, has foreign connections and an international career, and this made her public disclosure more comprehensible, even if not easier. By contrast, Arai Shouko confronts men who are powerful only in the context of their limited countryside setting, but who act even more freely of democratic oversight than men in Japan’s cities. In the countryside setting of Kusatsu, large tourism revenues, at least before COVID-19, empower its male ruling elite to carry on the business of government and commerce in the town without regard to women, and without including them. They fail not merely to include women but actively attempt to purge them from decision-making positions through techniques of violence such as sexual assault, and through whispering campaigns about female deportment and propriety. Further still, while democratic institutions like prefectural government can be relied upon to offset some of the undemocratic, arbitrary decision-making of town and village councils, such institutional checks and balances are subverted by the misuse of democratic mechanisms like local petitions and plebiscites.
Male violence against women in politics acts as a blunt tool to keep women out of—or eject women from—what used to be an exclusively male domain. A recently published book by a leading feminist political scientist documents the extent and effects of violence against women in politics internationally and notes that, increasingly, this violence is recognised and named as an obstacle to women’s rights and to democracy. In Japan, which has the lowest proportion of women in politics in the industrialised world, events in Kusatsu are a microcosm of political realities facing women in that country and the flawed democracy that passes for much of rural politics.
 There is a total 1711 councils in Japan, of which 20 per cent have never seen female representation.
 ‘Kusatsu shisshoku no josei chougi ni douchou,’ 7 December 2019, Asahi Shimbun, Gunma prefecture edition, p. 27.
 ‘Arai zen chougira wo Kusatsu chouchou ga teiso,’ 17 December 2019, Asahi Shimbun, Gunma prefecture edition, p. 25.
 ‘Chouchou shinjiteiru,’ 13 December 2019, Asahi Shimbun, Gunma prefecture edition, p. 25.
 ‘Jomei wo ichiji teishi,’ 13 February 2020, Asahi Shimbun, Gunma prefecture edition, p. 19.