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Rina Gonoi, Ex-SDF Soldier Who Spoke Out About Sexual Abuse, Hopes Her Struggle for Justice Will Help Change

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rina Gonoi speaks during an interview in Aoba Ward, Yokohama, on Nov. 29.

Rina Gonoi admits speaking up about sexual abuse she suffered from male personnel while serving in the Ground Self-Defense Force has been difficult, but she hopes that sharing her story will spark change in how society perceives reporting harassment.

Gonoi, 24, made international headlines when she came forward under her real name and reported the abuse.

“I did this because I thought setting a precedent might create an environment in which it’s easier for other victims to speak up,” Gonoi said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in late November. “I want our whole society to change its attitude toward harassment.”

Gonoi’s accusations prompted the Defense Ministry to conduct a special investigation into harassment within the SDF, and a fundamental review of the SDF’s measures to combat such misconduct is underway.

Gonoi, who was born in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, was a fifth-grade elementary school student when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011. The tsunami triggered by the massive quake destroyed Gonoi’s home. The SDF personnel who supported evacuees at shelters after the disaster made a lasting impression on Gonoi, and she joined the SDF in 2020. However, she left two years later after repeatedly being sexually harassed.

“The SDF personnel had been like heroes to me,” Gonoi said. “I’m still truly grateful to them, and that’s exactly why I want the SDF to change for the better.”

Gonoi decided to file a complaint without concealing her name. “I don’t want other women who will join the SDF to experience the same things I did,” Gonoi explained. She plucked up the courage to come forward because she could not allow herself to pretend that the abuse had never happened. But after filing her complaint, Gonoi was groundlessly slandered online. Even now, she is targeted by online abuse.

“I became emotionally unstable, and at times I couldn’t even leave my house,” Gonoi said. “I think the punishment for slander need to be harsher.”

Gonoi’s bravery in speaking up about her harassment and the impact this had on Japanese society was widely praised by overseas media. Gonoi was picked as one of Time magazine’s “TIME100 Next” rising leaders for 2023, and the BBC selected her on its list of 100 inspiring women for 2023.

“I know that not everybody has supported me, and there were times when I brooded, but I’m certain that the actions I took weren’t wrong,” Gonoi said.

The special investigation involving all SDF members resulted in more than 1,300 cases of harassment within the forces being reported. In October, it was revealed that a female member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force had quit after reporting cases of sexual harassment. It also was revealed that the woman was forced to meet the perpetrator to receive an apology directly from him, despite her refusal to meet him in person.

“What a victim wants varies depending on the person. More consideration must be given to the feelings of victims,” Gonoi said.

The Fukushima District Court will on Tuesday hand down a ruling on three former SDF members accused of indecently assaulting Gonoi. She has been present in court since the opening day of the trial.

“It has been a difficult struggle, but I hope society will head in the right direction. Harassment is a crime. Perpetrators should be firmly tried under the law,” Gonoi said.