Harassment rocks Defense Ministry, SDF

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Defense Ministry

The Defense Ministry has launched a special investigation involving all 300,000 members of the Self-Defense Forces to root out harassment, prompted by a sexual assault complaint filed by Rina Gonoi, a former Ground Self-Defense Force member.

A daily problem

“There are other victims besides me. I want [the SDF] to create an environment in which its members can serve with peace of mind.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Ground Self-Defense Force member Rina Gonoi, left, and Parliamentary Vice Defense Minister Jiro Kimura at the Defense Ministry on Aug. 31.

Gonoi, 23, formally conveyed her grievances to Parliamentary Vice Defense Minister Jiro Kimura at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district on Aug. 31.

After joining the GSDF in April 2020, Gonoi was assigned to Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture. She said she was subjected to sexual harassment on a daily basis, including being hugged by senior personnel, until she left the SDF in June 2022.

During the assault in August last year, a group of servicemen pressed the lower part of their bodies against her. The GSDF police investigated the case and sent a report on three servicemen to prosecutors on suspicion of indecent assault.

Later, the Fukushima District Public Prosecutors Office’s Koriyama branch dismissed the case for all three members.

Gonoi filed a request for the case to be reviewed by the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, which voted on Sept. 9 that dropping the charges was unjust on the ground that it was “difficult to say that the investigation had been fully carried out,” leading prosecutors to reinvestigate the case.

After leaving the forces, Gonoi conducted an online survey of former SDF members, as she was convinced others had undergone experiences similar to hers.

She received 146 responses with reports of harassment, including one that said “An X-ray of a female team member was passed around for everyone to see” and another statement that read, “A senior member told me to participate in strip rock-paper-scissors.”


Last fiscal year, the Defense Ministry recorded 2,311 cases in which individuals sought advice concerning harassment — about seven times the number recorded in fiscal 2017, at 326 cases — with 90% of them being about “power harassment,” a term used in Japan to denote workplace bullying.

A former SDF serviceman in his 30s said he left the Maritime Self-Defense Force because of such harassment. He joined the MSDF after graduating from high school.

One day, after having obtained permission to leave his station to eat, he was summoned by his superior officer.

“You’re a deserter,” the officer told him. “You will be punished by death.”

The former MSDF member, who had been visiting a clinic because of insomnia, said the incident caused him to have a breakdown. “There was a tacit understanding that SDF officials should put up with harassment, and it was difficult to speak up under such conditions,” he said.

The SDF is an organization designed to cope with emergencies, and the Self-Defense Forces Law stipulates that “Personnel must faithfully follow the orders of their superiors in the performance of their duties.”

At a regular press conference on Sept. 15, GSDF Chief of Staff Yoshihide Yoshida said: “In times of emergency, there are situations in which a superior officer has to impose his will [on his subordinates] to a considerable extent. Under the circumstances, there may be a climate in which harassment is likely to occur. However, orders given without respect for the individual, or that deny someone’s individuality, are absolutely unacceptable.”

Impact on defense capabilities

The Defense Ministry has been actively striving to recruit female SDF officials. As of March, the number of SDF servicewomen stood at about 19,000, or 8.3% of the total, but there are plans to increase this figure to more than 12% by fiscal 2030.

The ministry, whose leaders say they are eager to get to the bottom of the harassment claims, is concerned that the situation will make it difficult to recruit talented personnel, which could affect the foundation of the country’s defense capabilities.

For the special investigation, SDF officials, ministry secretaries and reservists will be asked to report by letter or email by the end of October if they have ever experienced sexual harassment or other forms of abuse.

Individual cases will be examined to see if appropriate action was taken. The defense minister will take remedial measures based on the results.

The ministry is providing a consultation service with lawyers and has also contracted independent counselors for personnel who fear their claims could be hushed up. The ministry has included about ¥20 million in its budget request for the next fiscal year to cover costs related to the issue.