The following translated article written by Yoshiko Hayashi, a former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan who is now a gender studies researcher at Ochanomizu University, exposes in detail the harassment of former town councilor Shouko Arai by the mayor and the town councilors of Kusatsu, one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts. The author shows that this problem is not unique to Kusatsu, but is deeply connected to the low status of women in Japan as a whole and the domination of politics and society by closed “boys clubs” of men. It is published here with the permission and check of the author, Hayashi.
Written by Yoshiko Hayashi, translated by Caroline Norma
Kousei Fukushi, 19 February 2021
The town of Kusatsu in Gunma prefecture is one of Japan’s top hot-springs resort destinations. The town’s first, and only, female councillor, Shouko Arai, was removed from her position after a town plebiscite in December 2020. The plebiscite came after she publicly accused the town’s mayor of sexually assaulting her. The case raises a number of issues relating to gender and democracy, and also questions about public perception of sexual assault in Japan, as well as the fact of an unmistakeable purge of female elected representatives occurring in other parts of Japan.
In this article I set out the major points of controversy in the case as they reflect perspectives that Arai has shared with me in interviews. Reflecting on her case, I explore approaches that will likely improve conditions in Japan for women.
Events preceding the plebiscite
Shouko Arai is from Kiryu city in Gunma prefecture, and began frequenting Kusatsu’s natural hot springs baths to treat her severe eczema. In 2009 she transferred her residence to Kusatsu, and, two years later, she was elected to the town’s council. She lost her seat in the subsequent election, but was elected again in 2019. According to Arai, she was sexually assaulted by Kusatsu mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa in January 2015, which was three months before her successful re-election for a second term. Her disclosure of the sexual assault appeared in the form of an e-book published in November 2019 in which Arai responded to questions from the book’s author. Kuroiwa is currently in his third term as town mayor, and is the owner of a gas distribution company in the town. Kuroiwa denies the accusations in full, and has both launched civil proceedings and made a criminal complaint of defamation against both Arai and the author of the e-book. He has additionally brought a civil claim against councillor Yasuji Nakazawa.
Soon after its release, Arai’s disclosure was discussed at council meetings, and, the following month, in December 2019, the council resolved that Arai’s statement in the e-book ‘damaged the standing of the council’, and so she would be removed from her position. In response, Arai appealed to Gunma prefecture’s governor to overturn the decision, and, in August, a prefectural committee convened to consider such cases ruled her removal was illegal. The committee reasoned that activities of councillors outside their official roles were not subject to official punitive action, and so Arai was restored to her council position.
Following her return, council chairman Takashi Kuroiwa began collecting signatures for a petition in a formal capacity as instigator of an administrative process to remove Arai from her elected position via a resident-voter plebiscite. He managed to collect 3180 valid signatures agreeing to the statement that ‘council debate is being sullied by lies and baseless false accusations’, which covered 60 percent of registered town voters. The outcome of the resulting plebiscite held on 6 December 2020 was 2542 votes favouring Arai’s removal, and 208 against. With more than 90 percent of the vote favouring removal, Arai lost her council seat.
The hot-springs resort of Kusatsu is famous even outside of Japan, and foreign media reported on Arai’s case. The UK’s Guardian wrote that Arai’s ‘plight has highlighted the male domination of local and national politics in Japan’, and the New York Times noted that Arai’s ‘case highlights the difficulties faced by women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault in Japan’. Foreign media linked the case to sexism still entrenched in contemporary Japan.
The first controversy: Are victims of sexual violence lying if they fail to bring legal proceedings?
At the heart of Arai’s case is controversy as to whether her disclosure of sexual assault is true or false. Arai says that she was sexually violated in the mayor’s council office during a meeting with him. At a press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan after the plebiscite’s launch, Kuroiwa reiterated his previous denial to the effect that Arai’s disclosure was ‘100% false. A fabrication’. He emphasised the fact that, while he had brought both criminal and civil proceedings against Arai, she had launched no proceedings against him at all. He emphasised the fact that ‘victims should go to police and the courts’, and noted that, ‘while I’m not saying this should be the case in every case’, in this instance, ‘she has made no report to authorities but is nonetheless broadcasting worldwide the claim that she has been violated by me’. Failing to lodge a claim with the courts, in other words, is ‘one indication the claim is a lie’.
Four days later, Arai appeared before the same Foreign Correspondents’ press conference and emphasised the truth of her claims. She explained why she had brought neither criminal nor civil proceedings against the mayor. In relation to the possibility of criminal action, she said that she had actually visited Gunma prefectural police headquarters, but, because mayor Kuroiwa was close to police command, she became uneasy when police expressed reluctance to allow her lawyer to accompany her during crime scene investigation visits. As a result, she ended up abandoning the process with police. In relation to civil action, she said that she had decided to concentrate on the civil case that mayor Kuroiwa had brought against her.
There are a number of points of contention in the accounts of Arai and Kuroiwa, which I won’t go into here. Instead, I will next explore the idea that victims should report their claims.
A number of myths surround the topic of sexual violence. These include the idea that victims are blameworthy in some way; perpetrators are unknown to victims; and, if the sex is really unwanted, then victims put up a big fight. We could add the idea that real victims report to police to this list. In reality, very few sexual assault victims report to police. Japan’s Cabinet Office in 2018 published a survey of gender-based violence that noted only 2.8 percent of female respondents who had experienced coerced sex reporting to police. Fully 58.9 percent of these victims had told no-one of their experiences, including friends or family, and reasons for non-disclosure included ‘too embarrassed to mention it to anyone’ (55.4%), and ‘I felt that keeping things to myself would help me get through the situation’ (27.7%).
The Cabinet survey also makes clear the flashbacks, insomnia, social anxiety, loss of self-esteem, and diminished mental health of victims. Indeed, in interviews I have undertaken with sexual assault survivors to date, it has not been unusual for them to tell me that repeatedly having to recall the events for the purpose of bringing a legal claim against the perpetrator is too mentally stressful, even if they do consider approaching police. This requirement causes victims to abandon the idea of reporting the crimes. In other words, the failure of victims to officially report sexual assault is no indication that they are lying. Any such suggestion is surely driven either by a lack of understanding of the nature of sexual assault, or else by a desire to deny the existence of such crimes.
A further survey of 51 victims of sexual assault in a 2020 edited volume by Azusa Saito and Yuko Ootake notes that ‘entrapment’ forms of the crime, in which perpetrators occupy positions of authority over victims, thereby leaving victims little avenue of escape, are common. Bosses, teachers, and seniors use their positions of authority to perpetrate the crime in that victims feel unable to squarely refuse their demands because they are often respected and trusted by their victims. These relationships of trust and respect also make it difficult for victims to recognise their experiences as those of sexual assault.
In Arai’s case, she admits she also originally felt respect for mayor Kuroiwa, and the reason she did not immediately disclose the assault was that, ‘even I couldn’t believe what he had done, and, on this basis, I assumed that no-one would believe me, so I resolved to keep it to myself’. Her disclosure four years later was a result of her continuing to attend council sittings in the audience gallery even after she lost her position. During this period of observing council sessions, she noticed mayor Kuroiwa becoming more and more authoritarian in his role, and she feared that not speaking up would leave town residents eventually unable to speak up about anything.
I cannot vouch for the veracity of Arai’s claims, but, at least in respect of mayor Kuroiwa’s claim that victim failure to report constitutes evidence of lying, I think that such arguments worsen the mistrust that victims feel towards society, and heighten their feelings of self-blame for sexual assault when they don’t report it. Victims respond in a variety of ways in between the two poles of either taking legal action against perpetrators or doing nothing. Approaching victimisation as if it becomes real only once reported severely limits the range of sexual assault that is recognised, and this approach renders the rest non-existent. It is a problem for making victimisation invisible.
Kusatsu town council held an out-of-session hearing on 18 January 2021 at which a resolution ‘To reclaim the good name of Kusatsu hot-springs’ was adopted. The resolution proposed that the council publicly declare Arai’s disclosure ‘fake victimhood’ unless Arai or her acting lawyer bring criminal action against Kuroiwa. At the hearing, however, mayor Kuroiwa said that, if Arai were to bring legal action against him, he would, in turn, bring legal action against her under Japan’s false criminal-complaint law, and so ‘the matter would finally be sorted out, because one of us would end up arrested’.
By this stage, Kuroiwa had already brought civil action against Arai for defamation, and Arai had already been stood down from her council post. This further threat to have her arrested effectively functioned as a means of silencing Arai through physical purge, because he had resented the fact that she had, in spite of the legal action at foot, continued to speak out about her victimisation. For me, this was a shocking strategy to behold. The resolution expressed the council’s concern about accusations online that Kusatsu was a ‘second-rape’ town, and that calls had been made for tourists to boycott the town. But I believe the town risks inversely damaging its reputation through taking such an aggressive approach towards a victim.
The second controversy: Do plebiscites realise the true democratic will of residents?
During the plebiscite to remove Arai from her council seat, red posters appeared on the walls of public buildings throughout the town supporting the removal. These included the walls of the bus terminal through which visitors to the town pass, as well as those of the town’s public bathhouses. Cars also circulated the town blaring the message to vote in the plebiscite in favour of Arai’s removal. A blogger named Chidai who comments on electoral issues in Japan and witnessed these developments wrote, ‘For argument’s sake, even if we were to say that Arai’s claims were one hundred percent false, I think the actions we are seeing in Kusatsu are nonetheless a display of the treatment that is held in store for anyone deemed outcastes in the town’.
At the earlier-mentioned Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, mayor Kuroiwa emphasised the fact that Arai ‘was continuing to attempt to capitalise on her position as a town councillor, and the only legal remedy available to combat this situation was the “recall” plebiscite mechanism’. When asked about the flyers posted on the walls of public buildings in the town, he responded that permission would probably be granted to Arai’s supporters if they asked to similarly post flyers.
Arai, on the other hand, says that the plebiscite mechanism is a system established to allow governance by residents, and that the mechanism, which should be initiated and led by residents, was subverted in its use by sitting councillors. The council chairman and other town heavyweights signed their names as initiators of the plebiscite, and ‘residents who were approached to sign or vote were forced to comply out of pressure to do so’, Arai suggests. The vote to remove Arai attracted 600 fewer supporters than the earlier petition to enact the plebiscite, and Arai thinks this reflects the existence of a group of people who felt unable to refuse requests for signatures, but then were able to abstain or cast no votes in private once the plebiscite was held.
Tokyo University municipal government administration specialist Toshiyuki Kanai, in a website interview with the Asahi newspaper on 17 November 2020, said that, ‘Everything else aside, I don’t agree that the reputation of the town and its residents is being damaged by the fact that, at present, we have this uncertain situation where the claims of both parties circulate in parallel. On the contrary, if sexual violence is found to have actually taken place, but then buried by the power of numbers, then ultimately the standing of the town and its residents will be damaged. He further noted inconsistency in the plebiscite system that required more than half of all eligible voters to oppose Arai’s removal (which, in this case, would need to have amounted to1400 votes) and thereby fail, even though Arai was originally elected to her council seat with only a 110-vote majority.
The initiator of the plebiscite process, council chairman Takashi Kuroiwa, was reported in the Web Asahi on 6 December 2020 as describing the plebiscite result as ‘a huge success with an overwhelming vote in favour. Residents have passed their judgement that Arai’s claims are lies’, he said. But residents’ votes in the plebiscite were not for the purpose of deciding the veracity of Arai’s claims, and to suggest they were is to worryingly confuse the situation. For his part, mayor Kuroiwa, in response to a press conference question, said that ‘the plebiscite does not confirm or deny the fact of sexual violence’.
Regardless, we might question whether local governance aims were really achieved through the decision to deploy the plebiscite mechanism to strip a councillor of their position while facts of the case were not yet settled. The answer to this question is relevant to the discussion below, which explores women’s place in Japanese politics.
The third controversy: the harassment of female politicians
After the plebiscite was launched against Arai, the Alliance of Feminist Representatives, which is an organisation formed by regional female politicians in Japan, sent a protest letter to Kusatsu council. The letter stated that ‘the plebiscite organised by the council chairman and others distorts the aim of the Local Government Law that established the mechanism’. The letter criticised the council as having waged a ‘boys club attack against a victim speaking out that is typical of male dominant society,’ and called for Arai’s reinstatement.
The council responded to the letter with a publicly announced rebuttal signed by council chairman Takashi Kuroiwa. It said that ‘the plebiscite…was initiated legally in order to give voice to residents’, and that ‘it does not seek to remove Arai from the council because she is a woman’. Behind the Alliance’s argument was a survey it undertook in 2015 to collect respondent experiences of sexism in local government councils. The survey was launched after Ayaka Shiomura (now an upper house national parliamentarian) was subjected to sexist taunts in 2014 while a member of the Tokyo city council.
According to the research’s results, 74 out of 143 respondents to the survey (52%) said that they had been subjected to unwanted sexual comments or behaviour from either council staff or councillors while holding an elected position. Of these respondents, 50 replied that such incidents had happened between one and five times, and 8 respondents said they had occurred between six and ten times. 13 respondents said the incidents were too numerous to count, which amounted to nearly 10% of the total.
In respect of the ratio of council seats occupied by victims, 75% of women belonging to councils in which they were the sole female representative had been victimized, and 66% of women belonging to councils with only two female representatives had been victimized. While reports of sexual harassment were not low even in the case of respondents belonging to councils with greater female representation, the report noted that ‘sexist victimisation was more likely in councils with low female representation’.
Victimisation included physical touching, pornographic comments, and sexist degrading taunts on the floor of council assemblies. The report describes a number of case studies. For example, an elderly male councillor shouted, ‘be quiet, you woman!’ in response to one female councillor’s whispered objection to something he was announcing in the assembly chamber. Another female councillor who expressed dissatisfaction in a council report about the council’s male-dominated culture was repeatedly censured by a male councillor and forced to withdraw the comment and apologise. In another incident, a female councillor who noted in her newsletter to supporters that she’d been verbally abused by a male councillor in a council building hallway was forced to sue him for sexual harassment after he threatened defamation proceedings. Another female councillor working on a council bulletin editing committee noticed that both she and another female councillor’s submissions had been altered, and were harassed for objecting to this fact.
In other cases, attacks upon female representatives come to light when these women are subject to official punishment. In 2017, Kumamoto city councillor Yuuka Ogata attempted to bring her infant child into the chamber and was subject to an official ‘severe’ reprimand as a result. In 2018 she was suspended from the chamber for having a cough lolly in her mouth while verbally responding to questions in the assembly. In another incident in 2020, this time in Saitama prefecture’s Hidaka city council, Madoka Tanaka was forced to resign after commenting on social media about the attitudes of male councillors during assembly sessions. The elderly male councillor who moved the resolution for Tanaka’s removal was quoted in an October 2020 magazine article suggesting that female representatives were acceptable as long as they were ‘feminine, sweet, and go along with everyone’. In January 2021, Yukiko Tsuchiya launched civil action against Yugawara town council in Kanagawa prefecture after she was suspended from the council after questioning the tabling of a list of town taxpayer names.
These examples clearly show the voices and actions of female representatives being shut down on the basis they are women. In other words, female representatives can be cancelled when they fail to be feminine and accommodating.
A related example is the 3 February 2021 remark by the chairman of Japan’s Olympic committee, Yoshiro Mori, that ‘board meetings with lots of female members take ages’. Much comment has been made on this incident, but, beyond anything, it reflects efforts to discourage women from speaking up by creating a chilly reception for any contribution they make to meetings. UK literary theorist Mary Beard in her 2017 Women and Power, through interpreting Greek myths, shows that women of all times and places have been barred from speaking in public. This situation appears to still hold in contemporary Japan.
The Alliance of Feminist Representatives in their above-mentioned statement to Kusatsu’s council used the phrase ‘a boys club attack typical of male-dominant society’, and this description also points to an important framework for thinking about the position of women in Japanese politics. In the survey, male observers of the physical groping of female politicians by their male counterparts made light of the behaviour, and covered up for the councillors who verbally abused female speakers in council assembly meetings. The Alliance report offers critical comment on these bystanders as offering ‘enthusiastic third-party endorsement of harassment’.
The writer Minori Kitahara sat in the Kusatsu town council audience gallery to observe the assembly held immediately prior to the plebiscite vote. In the midst of assembly discussion of Arai’s case, men sitting behind her in the gallery muttering, ‘who’d wanna do her?’, followed up with, ‘I’d pity even a dog who had to’. Kitahara reflected on the experience that she felt like she spent the whole time being sexually harassed from behind. Her experience, too, reflects Alliance’s description of a ‘boys club attack’.
Towards an end to the old boys’ club
Female suffrage in Japan has a 75-year history. Not just politics but most spheres of decision making in relation to humans living in Japanese society have, though, long been dominated by men, and, even if the law dictates sex equality, ground-level conditions remain hard to shift. Not only do women have trouble entering spheres of decision-making, once they enter such spheres their voices are not given proper hearing, and they face sexual harassment and restrictive gendered expectations of femininity. The ‘boys club attack’ that is waged upon victims of sexual assault, moreover, amounts to a form of second rape.
American literary scholar Eve K. Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire sees male homosociality, misogyny, and homophobia as a tripartite social structure. Men of similar upbringing, class, education, employment, and other commonalities strengthen their bonds in informal spheres like bars, golf clubs, and pool halls, and decisions are made about everything in this way. This ‘old boys’ club’ can be likened to the networks of men that are maintained after graduation from all-boys private schools into society at large.
Because the old boys’ club decides everything informally, official meetings are merely places where those decisions are confirmed. The voices of women who participate in these meetings with the expectation that matters are being discussed from scratch are perceived by old boys’ club members as ‘taking ages’.
The old boys’ club strengthens itself through expunge women and unmanly men. In order to remain a member, work must take precedence over all else, men must be manly, and superiors must never be crossed.
It was not just Arai who was expunged from the Kusatsu town council; in fact, Yasuji Nakazawa, Arai’s sole supporter on the council, was also targeted. He lodged a no-confidence motion against mayor Kuroiwa in December 2019. In retaliation for having done so, he then attracted a sanction for having ‘damaged the order and dignity of the assembly’. The motion was passed, and he was forced to issue an apology in the assembly.
I asked Nakazawa why he supported Arai. He explained that Arai’s account was precisely that of a victim, and so believed it. I then asked him why he was able to act differently from the other councillors, and the 86-year-old Nakazawa said, ‘I was a child soldier in the Second World War, and I saw the attitudes of adults around me reverse in an instant at the end of it. Then I realised I had to think for myself about everything’.
Under Sedgwick’s tripartite structure, women must bend to the old boys’ club to survive. The fundamental discrimination of the structure does not change through incorporating women who bend to it. Gender equality requires more than legal change; we must set our sights on dismantling the tripartite structure itself.
In the political sphere, greater female representation, before anything, is key. According to the 2019 databook of women’s political participation released yearly by the Ichikawa Fusae Center for Women and Governance, of Japan’s 1788 regional councils, 302 (16.9%) include no female representation, and 455 (25.4%) include just one female councillor. This means that fewer than two women sit on more than 40 percent of Japan’s regional councils. National-level government is not too different, and female representation in Japan’s upper house makes up only 9.9% of the total.
The landscape of decision-making venues in Japan is replete with men, and a sea of dark-coloured suits envelops the nation. A law promoting women’s participation in politics was passed in 2018, but expanding female representation will require serious consideration of a quota system.
Achieving gender equality in the regions
We must increase women’s numbers in all spheres of decision-making, including outside of politics, such as in companies and the public service. As at January 2021, of Kusatsu’s 111 public servants, only 39 (35.1%) are women, and there is only one woman among the bureaucracy’s 16 managers.
According to government statistics for the year 2019, women make up 76.3 percent of workers in the accommodation and hospitality industries that are at the centre of Kusatsu’s economy. But, the gap between them and management is extreme: they make up only 16.9 percent of the industries managers.
Different from the ‘vacations’ that were popular in high-growth-era Japan in the 1960s and 1970s when company work-units went away together on overnight trips, and when these were mostly all-male, tourist destinations in Japan these days make an effort to attract independent travellers, and especially women. Surely it is difficult to respond to the needs and preferences of these travellers with local government and accommodation-sector decision-making bodies are dominated by men. Only with women working and living in the town, and exercising their full capabilities, will female visitors feel comfortable visiting and staying in its facilities.
I believe that serious pursuit of gender equality in a united, coordinated way in regional areas will deliver prosperity to everyone. I hope that Kusatsu bites the bullet and heads in such a direction.