Japan ex-soldier says misconduct routine in her army unit

TOKYO (AP) — A former Japanese soldier who came forward with her sexual misconduct case said Monday that harassment was as rampant in her army unit as if “part of daily communication.”

Rina Gonoi filed the case last year with the Defense Ministry, but it was dropped. She demanded it to be reinvestigated earlier this year, saying she had suffered multiple assaults by a number of male colleagues, causing her to give up her military career.

In response, Japan’s army in September acknowledged part of the misconduct and apologized, and last week fired five servicemen and punished four others. The Defense Ministry also announced interim results of a rare organization-wide investigation that found over 100 similar complaints and other forms of misconduct totalling more than 1,400.

In announcing the punishments last Thursday, army chief Yoshihide Yoshida repeated his apology to Gonoi and said he felt a strong sense of responsibility over her sorrow and pain. He also said he took the problem seriously and was determined to eradicate such misconduct.

“At a unit I belonged to, sexual harassment was so rampant it was carried out as if a part of communication and there was a loss of sensitivity,” Gonoi told reporters Monday. She said the punishments in her case were “appropriate,” but added that other soldiers who looked the other way should have been also held accountable.

Gonoi was first assigned to a Fukushima unit in April 2020, and said she quickly became a target of sexual misconduct. Her male superiors repeatedly asked her breast size, suddenly hugged her in a hallway and made unnecessary physical contacts such as trying judo techniques on her, Gonoi said.

Then in July 2021, inside a tent at a training ground, she had her breasts touched by male superiors, who also forced her to touch their private parts, she said.

In August 2021, senior male colleagues pressed the lower part of their bodies against her in a dorm at a training ground, forcing her to spread her legs, as if having sex, while more than 10 other male colleagues, including two supervisors, watched and laughed, but none tried to stop them, Gonoi said.

After dropping their initial investigation in May, civilian prosecutors are reinvestigating her case after her appeal.

Sexual misconduct complaints are often disregarded in Japan, which ranked 116th in a 146-nation survey of gender inequality by the World Economic Forum for 2022. Victims also tend to face criticism for speaking up.

Japan is grappling with ways to secure an adequate number of troops, a crucial requirement for Japan’s Self-Defense Force as it seeks to bolster its capability in the coming years. Concern among young women and their parents about widespread sexual misconducts could add to Japan’s chronic shortage of service members and present a national security risk, experts say.

“Before recruiting more women, I want the Self-Defense Force to create an environment that can eradicate sexual harassment,” Gonoi said.

Even though training sessions are carried out equally for men and women, “I feel women tend to be underestimated” in the army where physical strength matters. When it comes to carry loads and equipment, women are considered “0.5 of one man,” she said after the news conference.

She said she hopes the problems will be resolved. Otherwise, her coming out and filing the complaint, which received support from rights activists and her former peers but also triggered criticism, “is meaningless.”

“I came forward because I didn’t want to see other female service members become victims like me,” she said. “I hope we can make a society where we don’t even have to raise our voice to get the problems resolved.”

Gonoi said she learned of many sexual misconduct allegations from female servicemembers who reached out to her after she went public.

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