Machiko Matsumoto

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–“Gang rapists are somewhat better (than other men) because they have vigor.”

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Seichi Ota made the remark in late June, in front of a large audience during a debate–as it so happened–on falling birthrates.

He was responding to the recent arrest and widespread media coverage of five male studentsfrom three elite private Tokyo universities who were at the time being charged by a 20-year-old woman for raping her in a bar after a social get-together for students. Ota went on to shrug off the case as a sign of “virility” on the part of the young men and to characterize their actions as being “almost normal.”

Meanwhile, as the case was in the media limelight in late June, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told the weekly Shukan Bunshun that given the provocative style of contemporary fashion, “there is room for leniency.” The minister, in charge of a gender-equality panel run by the prime minister’s office, was quoted as saying: “Some women really dress as if to say, ‘Please do it,’ don’t they?”

When a journalist parried that women who dressed more modestly in old Japan were also raped, Fukuda is reported to have replied jokingly, that he “doesn’t know about what really happened those days.”

Fukuda is an alumnus of Waseda University, one of the schools attended by one of the accused young men. Ota earned a doctorate from Keio University, another leading private school in Tokyo.

Reports of Bravado

In early August the five accused young men were arrested. After the accusations against them became public, several other women went to the police and said that they too had been raped by the same group. Two weeks ago, another woman filed a complaint and the man in that case is currently under police investigation. According to news reports here, the men have not only confessed, they have tried to outdo each other–as though it were all good sport–in their claims about the number of women they raped.

As female politicians and members of the media criticized the two politicians for their remarks, both men apologized and tried to shake them off as a joke. Women’s rights activists, however, are not treating it as a laughing matter.

In response to both the rape case and the politicians’ reactions to the alleged crime, feminist groups are planning to lobby against conservative male politicians who have made derogatory remarks about women.

“It is an unacceptable remark,” says Mizuho Fukushima, a lawyer and secretary general of the Social Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, referring to Ota’s remark. “It not only abuses the human rights of women but also justifies a serious crime.” According to police statistics, rape reports rose to 2,357 in 2002, up from 1,603 in 1999.

Machiko Matsumoto, member of Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center, an active grass-roots group working to protect women from violence, is at the forefront of these efforts. She says that more than 2,000 signatures–30 percent from men–have been collected that press Ota to resign.

“Resignation is not the answer,” Matsumoto says, “But we have to start somewhere to change attitudes in Japan.” (The resignation effort focused on Ota because Fakuda’s comments hadn’t been publicized when they began the push in early July.)

Women as Playthings

Matsumoto says the politicians’ comments betray the sexual discrimination that pervades Japan despite the country’s high-tech sophistication. “Postwar industrialization has not been accompanied by gender equality,” says Matsumoto. “International pressure has made male politicians, who manage Japan, aware of gender equality. But deep-rooted traditions are hard to change, which is why men continue to regard women as their sexual playthings.”

Others here say traditional roles encourage men to view the women who go drinking with them as having loose morals and therefore easy prey.

“For women, rape is a vicious violence,” says clinical psychologist Sayoko Nobuta. “But the defendants saw the women as no more than an object to satisfy their sexual desires. I guess somehow, they selfishly assumed that the girls were also enjoying it.”

Professor Yasuko Muramatsu, a women’s studies teacher at Tokyo Gakugei University, says gender roles remain starkly separate and defined by tradition. “Boys are constantly told to work harder and be strong,” she says, “whereas girls are nurtured to be gentle and caring. This translates to sexuality as well.”

Helping Other Women

The woman who first brought the charges said she has done so in part to help other women.

“I was shattered and cried for many days after the horrifying incident,” she told the weekly Shukan Bunshu in an interview published in July. “But with my parents help, I went to the police. I did this for the sake of other innocent women have being violated by the students.”

In that same article, other victims spoke of shock and pain and fear of social rejection if they dared to ask for justice. “The perpetrators kept calling me to join them again after they raped me. I was too ashamed to tell my parents,” one young woman was quoted as saying. Another described herself as “unfortunate” and spoke of sleepless nights as she worried over the risk of pregnancy. Police investigations have found that the women were all invited to parties for freshmen organized by current and former students of the universities.

Suvendrini Kakuchi, a Sri Lankan journalist in Tokyo, has covered Japan and Asia for almost 20 years.

For more information:

Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center
(English and Japanese):

Women’s eNews–
“Japan’s Battlers of Sex Abuse Confront Culture, Law”: