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Guilty verdicts in Japan army sexual assault case

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AFP)A court in Japan found on Tuesday three ex-soldiers guilty of sexually assaulting a woman colleague and gave them suspended jail terms, bringing to a close a rare case for a country where victims rarely come forward to speak out against abuse.

The court in Fukushima sentenced Shutaro Shibuya, Akito Sekine and Yusuke Kimezawa to two years in prison, but suspended for four years, for their “forced indecency” on Rina Gonoi during a military drill in 2021.

In a socially conservative country where the #MeToo movement failed to gain much ground, Gonoi, 24, took to YouTube last year to share her account after an internal military probe was dropped for lack of evidence.

Former member of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force Rina Gonoi (L) arrives on December 12, 2023 at the Fukushima District Court, which found three ex-soldiers guilty of sexually assaulting her. PHOTO: AFP

The public attention from the viral video and a petition signed by more than 100,000 people forced the defence ministry to acknowledge the assault and apologise.

This March, prosecutors reversed an earlier decision and charged the three men, who have been dismissed from the military and face two years in prison if convicted.

Gonoi, who was in court on Tuesday for the verdict, told AFP in an interview in February that her decision to go public was “desperate rather than brave”.

She said that after fulfilling a childhood dream and enlisting in 2020, she experienced daily harassment.

“When walking down the hallway, someone slaps you on your hip, or holds you from behind,” she told AFP.

“I was kissed on the cheek, and my breasts were grabbed.”

Then, during a drill in 2021, she says three colleagues pressed her to the ground, forced apart her legs and each repeatedly pressed their crotches against her while others watched and laughed.

‘Stigma and shame’ 
Women rarely hold positions in the upper echelons of Japanese politics, business, government and military. The country’s gender pay gap is the worst among advanced economies.
Prominent cases such as Gonoi’s — and a handful of others like that of journalist Shiori Ito, who accused a prominent TV reporter of rape — are rare.
“In Japan, suffering sexual violence brings stigma and shame, often leaving survivors reluctant to come forward,” Teppei Kasai from Human Rights Watch told AFP before the verdict.
A 2021 government survey showed that about six per cent of assault victims, men and women, went to the police, while nearly half of women respondents said they could not because of “embarrassment”, Kasai said.
Stricter laws 
Inspired by Gonoi, however, more than 1,400 women and men have submitted their allegations of sexual harassment and bullying in the military following a special inspection by the defence ministry.
This June, Japan passed legislation redefining rape, including removing the requirement that victims prove they had sought to resist their attacker.
Britain’s BBC in November included Gonoi on a list of 100 “inspiring and influential women” for 2023. Time magazine also included her in its “100 Next” list of people to watch.
But Gonoi, who is suing her alleged attackers and the government in a parallel civil case, received a torrent of vitriol online after coming forward.
“I was prepared for defamation, but it’s tough,” she told AFP, saying at one point it got so bad she did not leave her home for five days.
“There’s something wrong with Japan — people attack victims instead of perpetrators.”