Japan military opens probe after sex harassment complaints

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s defense minister said Tuesday he has ordered a ministry-wide special investigation into growing reports of sexual assault after allegations of harassment were brought by a former soldier.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada’s order came after a female former soldier, Rina Gonoi, came forward in late August to request a reinvestigation of an alleged assault of her by former male colleagues last year. She also said she had received information from 146 servicemembers who said they had been harassed while on duty.

Hamada said the number of reported harassment cases has increased sharply in recent years despite efforts by the ministry to prevent them, and that it is time for a thorough review of the problem.

“Harassment is a violation of basic human rights. It also shakes troop morale and absolutely should not happen,” Hamada said.

Hamada said the number of complaints of sexual, power and other forms of harassment has risen from 256 in 2016 to 2,311 last year.

In a country where gender inequality remains high, sexual harassment is often disregarded and the #MeToo movement has been slow to catch on. But Japanese women have started to speak up, including some recently in the film industry.

Last week, Gonoi submitted a petition to the Defense Ministry signed by more than 100,000 people seeking a reinvestigation of her case by a third party.

She said three senior male colleagues in a dorm at a training ground in August 2021 pressed the lower part of their bodies against her, forcing her to spread her legs, as more than 10 other male colleagues watched and laughed, but none tried to stop them. She said in a statement that she filed a case with the ministry, but that the investigation was not properly conducted and local prosecutors dropped the case in May. A month later she quit the army and disclosed her allegations on social media.

Gonoi said she felt her case had been quashed and she had to raise her voice because there could be more victims if she didn’t.

The ministry has begun a reinvestigation of the case.

On Tuesday, Hamada said he has dispatched prosecutors from the Inspector General’s Office of Legal Compliance to the regional army division overseeing the unit where Gonoi served.

The ministry will also create a panel of outside experts to review measures against harassment and study the causes of the recent increase in reported cases, Hamada said.

Gonoi said she hopes the ministry will release the findings in her case and take strict disciplinary action against the alleged assailants.

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