Japan’s Military Ignored Her Sexual Assault Claims, So She Went Public

Photo for The Washington Post by Shiho Fukada
Rina Gonoi in Tokyo on Feb. 22. Gonoi, a former member of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, filed a lawsuit over sexual harassment she experienced during training.

TOKYO – Female soldiers at the evacuation center would carry heavy buckets of water so that Rina Gonoi and others whose homes were destroyed by the devastating tsunami of 2011 could bathe. Gonoi, then 11, decided she, too, would become a soldier to help others. ​​

But soon after joining the forces three years ago, Gonoi was sexually assaulted. When she spoke up, her allegations were repeatedly dismissed. She dropped out after just two years. ​​

Gonoi, now 23, is taking on her assailants publicly – a rare and difficult decision in a male-dominated society where sexual abuse victims face backlash for speaking out.

She is demanding a thorough investigation in the hopes of improving working conditions in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces for future generations of aspiring service members.

“There are so many people out there who can’t voice their struggles, and even for those who do, there is so much risk,” Gonoi said in an interview. “I really want to change that.”

Women are vastly underrepresented in positions of power in Japan, which is the world’s third-largest economy but consistently ranks as the most regressive developed nation on gender equality. The #MeToo movement that spread throughout the world fizzled as quickly as it arrived here, and a culture of silence about sexual abuse prevails.

Gonoi filed a lawsuit against her assailants and the government in January. She has become the first sexual assault survivor to gain intense public attention – and scrutiny – since Shiori Ito, a former journalist who in 2017 filed a lawsuit against her rapist and won.

​​​The lawsuit comes as Japan embarks on a major military buildup unprecedented in the postwar period, alarmed by China’s military threats and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But Japan’s shrinking population has created an acute personnel shortage that threatens to undermine its new national security strategy.

One solution is recruiting more women, who make up less than 10 percent of the forces. ​​Yet Gonoi’s case has revealed poor working conditions inside the forces, which could deter recruits: Her case prompted an internal investigation that drew 1,400 new reports of harassment in just two months.

Gonoi’s very public story is unusual because Japan remains hostile toward victims who speak up, even though gaining the public’s support is often the only way to be taken seriously. Her allegations were repeatedly dismissed until she went public last year, and it has come at great mental and physical cost.

Gonoi has been the target of a torrent of online abuse blaming her for her looks, accusing her of lying and even criticizing her for smiling in public – which social media trolls claimed was unbecoming of a victim.

So she was stoic and emotionless in news conferences, which were already intimidating, but even more so because she knew the public was watching her every move and word. But they slammed her for her seriousness, too. ​​

She had braced for backlash, but the hateful comments were nonetheless overwhelming. She has struggled with anxiety, weight loss and flashbacks as a result.

“In Japan, there is also the notion that victims shouldn’t smile, live out in the open, live normally, which I really hate. So I want to change that mood,” she said. “I want the world to be a place that is kinder to victims and a world that’s more comfortable for them to live in, however they want to.”

What resonates deeply with her are the many women and men who have approached her with their own stories of harassment from within the Self-Defense Forces and in other sectors in Japan – and how their efforts to raise complaints to their superiors or through helplines went ignored, like hers.

Gonoi joined the Ground Self-Defense Force of Japan, or the Japanese Army, in 2020 and quickly learned that unwanted physical touch and verbal sexual harassment were part of daily life, she said. At one event, men touched her breasts and forced her to touch a man’s genitals, she said. She had become almost inured to such behavior as she went through trainings at Camp Koriyama in northeastern Japan.

Then in August 2021, during training with more than a dozen male colleagues, several servicemen pinned her to the ground and simulated sexual acts on her while others watched and laughed.

The incident was her breaking point. She reported it to a female superior, and the two of them went to speak with a male superior, who dismissed her allegations, she said. The Ministry of Defense has acknowledged that a commander in Gonoi’s unit received her complaint but failed to report it to his superior.

She filed a formal complaint to the SDF’s human resources department, ​​which was forwarded to the local prosecutor’s office. But prosecutors could not find a witness to corroborate her allegation, and dropped her charges.

She took leave with reduced pay to cope with her trauma, but could not tell her parents why she came back. She felt alone, depressed and suicidal, she said.

One day she had planned to take her life, but then another earthquake came. It reminded her of surviving the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the many others who had not.

“I thought about all my classmates who couldn’t make it alive. I felt terrible that I was thinking of taking my own life when I had survived, and I strongly felt that I had to fight on,” she said. ​​

So she decided to take her story public. When television stations ignored her request, she went on a YouTube show. ​​She also started a petition and gained more than 130,000 signatures to request an investigation into the Ministry of Defense.

The public attention prompted the ministry to launch an internal investigation, which confirmed that Gonoi’s colleagues had sexually assaulted and repeatedly sexually harassed her.

The ministry arranged a private meeting with Gonoi and her perpetrators, who apologized to her 16 months after the incident, crying and kneeling for forgiveness. In December, the Defense Ministry dishonorably discharged five men and disciplined four others for not taking the matter seriously.

“We take this very seriously and will establish an organizational culture that does not tolerate harassment,” Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of the army, said at a news conference. He also apologized to her.

Gonoi said she felt their apology was overdue.

“I thought about how if they had properly investigated in the beginning, I wouldn’t have had to come public with my face and name and be under attack on social media,” she said. “The re-investigation and the apology happened only after I had come forward and public opinion was on my side – and sadly, that’s how it always is in Japan.”

Gonoi wants public accountability and systemic change within the military. ​​In January, she filed a lawsuit against five men, claiming $42,400 in damages. She also said she wants the men to make a public and “sincere” apology. She sued the Japanese government for its failure to prevent abuse and investigate her claims, and about $15,000 in damages.

“I hope that we can live in a world where people don’t have to go public, but sadly I think that’s the only way to really make change happen in Japan currently,” she said. “I hope I am the last one to experience this [going public] in the SDF. Otherwise, what I have been doing will become meaningless.”