Culture must be reformed to prevent despicable conduct

A female member of the Self-Defense Forces who was repeatedly sexually harassed by senior colleagues suffered immeasurably in an environment that lacked openness. There is an urgent need for measures to eliminate harassment.

Rina Gonoi was a member of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture when she was sexually abused by male personnel there. The Defense Ministry has punished five of her then senior colleagues by discharging them from the SDF.

The five servicemen allegedly touched Gonoi’s breast, forced her to the ground and pressed their lower bodies against her when they dined together in June and August 2021.

The five servicemen are said to have verbally harassed other female SDF members regularly. This is outrageous behavior. A harsh punishment was inevitable.

The five servicemen reportedly admitted to the accusations and claimed it was part of their friendship with her. Their excuse can only be described as astonishing. It must be said that they have not understood the gravity of the situation.

Three of the servicemen were referred to prosecutors for alleged indecent assault against Gonoi, but prosecutors dropped all of the charges. In September, however, the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution voted against the decision not to indict them, saying “the investigation was not sufficient.” It is hoped that another investigation will be carried out thoroughly.

In a heinous attempt to cover up the problem, some of the five men allegedly stopped Gonoi from telling others about the sexual harassment and gave inaccurate information during an internal investigation. Another superior who received a report of the abuse from Gonoi reportedly did not investigate the case.

After leaving the SDF, Gonoi posted accusations about the abuse online under her own name, prompting the Defense Ministry to launch a full-fledged investigation. Had it not been for her courageous accusations, the abuse might have been brushed under the rug.

Harassment such as abuse of subordinates by superiors has been rampant in the SDF. A ministry survey of all 300,000 SDF personnel conducted in the wake of Gonoi’s complaint uncovered 1,400 reports of misconduct.

The SDF attaches importance to the execution of its duties in a top-down fashion. One factor behind the prevalence of harassment may be a culture in which victims are unable to speak out about abuse.

The ministry needs to foster an environment in the SDF in which harassment is not tolerated. It is also important to create a system that does not put whistleblowers at a disadvantage.

There are as many as 19,000 female SDF members nationwide. Gonoi, a native of Miyagi Prefecture, lived through the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake when she was an elementary school student and joined the SDF because she looked up to the personnel who provided support during rescue operations. If the SDF is not a place where people can work safely, it might not be able to attract motivated recruits.

Amid a harsh security environment surrounding Japan and with the nation prone to natural disasters, the significance of the SDF has increased. If unreasonable behavior is left unchecked, the SDF will not be trusted by the public.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 21, 2022)