Journalist talks about hotbed of sexual harassment in Japan’s homeless: interview

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Former Ground Self-Defense Force member Rina Gonoi speaks about her experience of sexual abuse, which led to her resignation, during a press conference at the First Members Office Building of the House of Representatives on 29 September 2022. Pictured second from right is Kazuhito Machida, Chief of the Personnel and Education Office of the Ministry of Defense. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO — A former female member of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) who was sexually assaulted by several male colleagues received a direct apology from the members involved on October 17. Rina Gonoi, 23, who was a private first class at Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, continued to speak out about her experience of sexual abuse, even in the face of defamation.

The Mainichi Shimbun sat down with Komaki Matsuda, a freelance journalist and alumnus of the National Defense Academy who is well versed in issues concerning the leaders of the Self-Defense Forces, to talk about SDF culture and types of steps the Department of Defense should take to prevent a recurrence. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

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Question: What did you think when Gonoi filed the case with the authorities?

Answer: I was outraged imagining the amount of distress this caused Gonoi, and I felt respect for his courage to act. When I interviewed members of the self-defense forces after she filed the case, most of them said they had never heard of such events around them. At the same time, they all acknowledged the existence of sexual harassment and power harassment within the SDF. One of the factors behind the coexistence of these contradictory notions must be that the problems are not properly detected and that some people do not realize that certain actions constitute sexual harassment.

Q: Is there an atmosphere that prevents victims from raising their voices?

A: It’s a hierarchical society, and it can be difficult to speak up. When I was at the National Defense Academy, I could only say “yes” to upper class students, even if I wondered if something was wrong. Additionally, in the homeless organization that values ​​“strength,” disclosure of harassment tends to be seen as a sign of weakness. Also, in a world centered around competing physical strength, women tend to be considered a bit lower. A large number of women, very much in the minority, suffer harassment while thinking that they can become a qualified member by enduring difficult situations.

Q: How was it when you attended the National Defense Academy and the GSDF Officer Candidate School?

A: Compared to ordinary business relationships, SDF members have a close relationship as comrades, and sometimes sexual remarks are jokingly made between members. At the time, I used to point fingers at remarks that amounted to sexual harassment, but I was told I was a party girl. An environment must be created to ensure that anyone asking others to stop harassing them will not be fired.

Q: How should the Ministry of Defense modify its current system?

A: There are already several harassment consultation windows in the Department of Defense, but it appeared in this recent case that they are not working properly. First, the content of consultations and reports must be properly reflected in the actions taken within the organization. Gonoi said that although she reported the matter to her boss, she was pushed aside and dropped. Amid the dense human relationship of the SDF, even if a subordinate does something wrong, supervisors tend to develop sympathy for their future. First, the department must establish a history of victim care and properly discipline wrongdoers so that members are confident that if they report cases, they will be dealt with properly. Using the Internet and other resources, create an environment where it is easy to report cases, as well as a system to regularly apprehend the reality within the organization.

Q: What education needs to be done to prevent bullying?

A: The GSDF has a culture that differs from ordinary companies, such as huddling and putting your arms around your shoulders. If a negative list of things that should not be done is forced upon them, male and female members will not be able to get together, and female members may also feel uncomfortable. A relationship based on trust is essential for members of the self-defense forces to perform their duties. To build trust, they must respect each other’s humanity and care for their peers. Following the recent case of sexual abuse, the message of appreciation for each member must be transmitted. This also applies to male members. Not all male members are strong or like to talk about sexual topics. In some cases, they find it even more difficult than their female counterparts to say “no” in the face of male pressure. The SDF must become an organization where members, regardless of gender, appreciate each other and avoid doing things that upset others.

(Original interview in Japanese by Motomi Kusakabe, Department of Political Information)






Komaki Matsuda is seen in this photo she provided.

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Regarding Gonoi’s case, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a session of the House Budget Committee on October 18 that “the forces on the ground and the Ministry of Defense have responded to the case in a inappropriate”. He commented, “Harassment has emerged as a problem within the Ministry of Defense and the Self-Defense Forces on numerous occasions, and it has been pointed out that they tend to cover up such cases.” The Prime Minister has expressed his intention to work to “eradicate all forms of harassment” through inspections and other means.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka, Policy News Department)

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