Japanese air force member sues government for allegedly failing to protect her from sexual harassment

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A Japanese air force serviceperson filed a lawsuit against the government on Monday, saying it had failed to protect her from verbal sexual harassment from a male colleague and then systematically covered up the problem for more than a decade.

The plaintiff, who was only identified as a current member of the Air Self Defense Force, faced verbal sexual abuse starting as soon as she was assigned to Naha air base on the southern island of Okinawa in 2010, her lawyers said.

The plaintiff is seeking about $85,800 in damages from the government for failing to protect her from the harassment and failing to create a better working environment, and for not countering the criticism she received for speaking out, causing her to suffer for more than 10 years, lawyer Daisuke Tabuchi told reporters.

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The lawyers said the perpetrator also made similar comments to other female air force members, but they didn’t openly complain to avoid friction. They said they want to call into question the tendency of the male-dominated military to neglect and cover up sexual harassment.

The Defense Ministry said it had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

The harassment from the plaintiff’s colleague included frequent comments about her body and public questions about her sex life, her lawyers said.

She sought help from her supervisors and an SDF sexual harassment consultation department, but subsequent awareness training put her on the spot, giving her a reputation as a troublemaker rather than a victim, they said.

Lawyers of a Japanese air force serviceperson, who filed a lawsuit against the government over sexual harassment, walk to enter Tokyo District Court on Feb. 27, 2023.

Lawyers of a Japanese air force serviceperson, who filed a lawsuit against the government over sexual harassment, walk to enter Tokyo District Court on Feb. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

After six years’ endurance, she filed an earlier lawsuit against the perpetrator in 2016 at Naha District Court, which dismissed the case the following year even though it acknowledged his sexual harassment. It said he could not be held responsible as an individual public servant and that the government should bear responsibility. The decision was upheld by a high court.

The plaintiff also filed a criminal complaint with the military police in 2019, but prosecutors eventually dropped the case, according to the lawyers.

They said she has developed stress and insomnia, and has suffered career setbacks in an alleged organizational revenge for her having spoken up.

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Sexual misconduct complaints are often disregarded in Japan, and victims tend to face criticism for speaking up.

Lawyers say Japan’s military has lagged behind private companies in dealing with harassment.

“The Self Defense Force has faced staff shortages and is desperately recruiting members, and yet problems like these are left unchecked,” said Yukiko Takei, another lawyer for the plaintiff. “We must say governance at the Japanese military is not properly functioning.”

Monday’s lawsuit comes weeks after another SDF sexual harassment victim, former army soldier Rina Gonoi, filed a civil lawsuit against five alleged perpetrators and the government over sexual abuse she suffered.

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She went public with her experience last year, demanding that the Defense Ministry re-investigate her case, in which she said she was repeatedly assaulted by several servicemen, causing her to give up her military career. The army dropped her case after she initially filed a complaint in 2021, saying there was insufficient evidence.

Preliminary results of a ministry-wide harassment investigation launched in response to Gonoi’s case found 1,414 complaints, the ministry said in December. About 84% involved abuse of power, while sexual harassment accounted for 116 cases, or 7.7%, the ministry said.

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