(Bloomberg) -- Monica Fukuhara was a college student working at a restaurant when it happened to her. As she was saying goodbye to a customer, he grabbed her chest, she says.
The man was a valued regular. She was a part-time waitress. The manager shrugged.
“I didn’t tell people close to me what happened, certainly not my family,” recalls Fukuhara, now 26. She remembers being left with a feeling of helplessness and anger, which soon turned into shame.
This experience fueled her decision to help organize #WeToo Japan, a movement following the #MeToo phenomenon in the U.S. yet with some key differences.
In Japan, societal norms make it difficult for sexual harassment victims to talk about their experiences because of shame and worries about victim-blaming, she said. So in a society often used to looking the other way on issues of sexual harassment and abuse, the #WeToo hashtag is meant to be used in social media not only by victims, but by those endorsing an end to harassment.
A group of activists including Fukuhara and Shiori Ito launched #WeToo Japan in February after deciding on the need for widespread support, saying it goes beyond the self-identification of victims in the #MeToo movement started in the U.S. last year.
“By using #WeToo instead, we show greater solidarity. We are letting victims know they’re not alone and that we listen and support, making it easier to speak up,” Fukuhara said. “Since Japanese society has some sort of prejudice against victims, it’s difficult for women to raise their hands and say #MeToo.”
Their cause has struck a chord in Japan. According to organizers’ estimates, a crowd of about 2,000 people gathered in Tokyo last month for a protest against sexual violence, with the slogan “I Will Not Remain Silent.” The protest, which attracted people from their 20s to 70s, was organized by women over various social media platforms.
A week before, more than a dozen female and male opposition party lawmakers held up posters bearing the #MeToo slogan in the Diet, Japan’s Parliament. Members had gathered for a hearing on the sexual harassment scandal involving the Finance Ministry’s former top bureaucrat.
In Japan, more than two-thirds of rape and sexual assault victims said they have never told anyone what happened to them and only 4 percent have reported such crimes to police, according to a 2015 government survey. By comparison, the U.S. Justice Department in that year said almost 33 percent of rape and sexual assault crimes in the U.S. were reported.
Things have been slow to change in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing his “Womenomics” measures in recent years, yet the country’s progress on female empowerment has been limited. Japan ranked 114th in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report for 2017, slipping from 111th a year earlier.
In 2016, the percentage of women on boards of the largest publicly listed companies in Japan rose to 3.4 percent from 1.7 percent in 2013, according to OECD data, putting it near the bottom of the list of OECD countries. The country also ranks low in female political representation at 158th among 193 countries as of April, below Syria and the Congo, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union data.
In patriarchal Japan, some women who have gone public with their #MeToo stories have been met with personal attacks and ridicule rather than sympathy.
Rika Shiiki, a 20-year-old college student entrepreneur, faced harsh online criticism when she said she had lost business contracts after refusing to have sex with clients. Shiiki was accused of lying and received online comments such as, “Show us evidence” and “Just go to the police.”
Shiori Ito, a journalist who has been credited with being the first to use the #MeToo hashtag in Japan, also faced bashing and blame after going public with her story, she recalls.
“I was vilified on social media and received hate messages and emails and calls from unknown numbers. I was called a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ and told I should ‘be dead.’ There were arguments over my nationality, because a true Japanese woman wouldn’t speak about such ‘shameful’ things,” Ito wrote on Politico.eu in January.
Ito is suing fellow journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi over allegations he raped her after discussing job opportunities over dinner and drinks in 2015. Yamaguchi -- a former Washington bureau chief for broadcasting company TBS and an Abe biographer -- denied any non-consensual interaction with Ito and prosecutors dropped the case in 2016.
Although Japan has been slow to the movement compared with other countries, the protests and growing support for victims show attitudes may slowly be starting to change.
A new survey conducted by Nikkei revealed that about 24 percent of women who experienced sexual harassment at work either reported it or told someone. The online poll of 1,000 working women in Japan was conducted from April 24-26. Still, 60 percent of women who said they had experienced sexual harassment said they “put up with it,” many because they thought speaking up would affect their status in their workplace.
Most recently, two high-profile men have seen their careers fall apart over sexual harassment allegations. A member of the TOKIO pop group was fired by his agency on Sunday over allegations he forcibly kissed a high school girl. Johnny & Associates terminated its contact with 46-year-old bass guitarist Tatsuya Yamaguchi, after his tearful public apology on April 25.
Separately, top Finance Ministry official Junichi Fukuda resigned on April 18 after a female journalist with broadcaster TV Asahi went to a tabloid magazine with recordings of lewd comments allegedly made by him. Although Fukuda has denied harassment, the ministry later announced his retirement allowance would be slashed because of the encounter.
Keiko Kojima, a former TV personality, knows all too well that the Japanese media industry is a man’s world. She explains that if you want to survive as a woman in the industry, you’re expected to get used to sexual harassment.
“For that TV Asahi journalist, I know just how difficult it must have been and how much courage she needed and how much she risked to speak up against Fukuda,” Kojima said. “This is why we can’t let her fight alone. Telling her story with #MeToo, then supporting her with #WeToo gives us this chance to create change.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.