Shiori Ito, 30, has become an outspoken symbol for #MeToo in Japan, where the movement against sexual harassment and abuse has struggled to take hold.

Japanese journalist Shiori Ito holds a banner reading
Japanese journalist Shiori Ito holds a banner reading "Victory" outside the Tokyo District Court after a court verdict in Tokyo, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo, December 18, 2019 (Reuters)

A Tokyo court awarded damages to a freelance journalist on Wednesday in a high-profile rape case that had been dropped by Japanese prosecutors, a landmark ruling that was welcomed by equal rights activists but underscored legal and social hurdles in a country where sexual assault victims continue to be stigmatised.

The Tokyo District Court ordered Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former newsman at TBS Television known for close ties to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other conservative politicians, to pay $30,150 (3.3 million yen) to journalist Shiori Ito, who filed a civil suit against him seeking compensation for physical and psychological pain.

Ito, who has become the face of Japan's slow-moving #MeToo movement, filed the civil suit in 2017 after prosecutors decided not to press charges against Yamaguchi. She demanded $100,540 (11 million yen) in damages and sought to find out why prosecutors dropped the criminal case.

Yamaguchi has denied any wrongdoing in published articles and on social media, saying they had sex by consent. He filed a countersuit this year, demanding she pay $1.2 million (130 million yen) for allegedly damaging his reputation by accusing him of rape.

The court ruled that Yamaguchi's act was not consensual sex but an assault and dismissed all of his claims.

He told a news conference after the ruling that he plans to appeal the verdict. He said the ruling one-sidedly upheld Ito's arguments without closely looking into details and facts.

“I have never done anything that violated the law,” Yamaguchi said. “It was so unfair that the ruling only accepted Ms Ito's arguments, despite claims that were untrue.”

Ito and her supporters said they hope her victory will promote awareness that will help create a society in which sexual victims don't feel intimidated or isolated.

“The victory does not mean all the pain that I had to suffer did not exist,” Ito told reporters after the ruling. “Wounds from sexual violence do not heal over time."

Judge Akihiro Suzuki said Ito's attempt to seek the truth in the case and how it was handled, and promote awareness about social and legal issues surrounding sexual assault, was based on an intent to serve the public interest and did not constitute defamation of the defendant.

Ito, who was seeking an internship in 2015 at TBS television, where Yamaguchi was a senior journalist at the time, said after she became dizzy and passed out in a restroom, Yamaguchi took her to his hotel room and raped her while she was incapacitated.

She said he continued the assault even when she woke up in pain and told him to stop.

Ito visited a women's clinic the next day to receive treatment and filed a criminal complaint with police, though it took weeks to get them to accept it and start investigating. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case, without explaining to her why.

She made headlines in May 2017 when she requested a court-appointed citizens' panel to review the prosecutors' decision to drop the case.

The panel voted in September in favour of the decision not to indict Yamaguchi, dashing her chance to pursue criminal justice.

Ito faced backlash and harassment after going public. Many online comments criticised her for speaking out, looking too seductive or ruining the life of a prominent figure, Ito has said.

She published a book, “Blackbox,” detailing her experiences in October 2015, just as the #MeToo phenomenon was making headlines in the US and elsewhere. It prompted some discussion in Japan, but only a handful of sexual assault victims came forward.

In her book and interviews, Ito has said police obtained an arrest warrant for Yamaguchi, but he was never arrested.

A group of opposition lawmakers has questioned if the charges were dropped against Yamaguchi because of his connections with powerful politicians.

Abe has denied being close to Yamaguchi. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and National Police Agency officials said the investigation of Ito's case was carried out properly.

The #MeToo movement is still only beginning to catch on in Japan, where speaking out often draws criticism rather than sympathy, even from other women.

There is a lack of awareness that non-consensual sexual acts are assaults, women's rights activists say. The civil case revealed the limitations of criminal investigations under the gender-biased Japanese legal system, said writer and feminist activist Minori Kithara.

“Even though the ruling was a victory for many sexual assault victims, it also revealed the problems of the criminal justice system," she said.

Japan increased penalties for rape and widened the definition of sexual assault victims in 2017, with a review due next year.

Women's rights activists, academics and legal experts say hurdles are still too high for victims and further changes to the law are needed.

Nearly three-quarters of rape victims say they never told anyone, and just over 4 percent went to the police, surveys show. They found that one in 13 Japanese women had been raped or forced to have sex.

“I hope we can change the social environment that tends to isolate and intimidate sexual assault victims and survivors,” Ito said after the ruling. “I hope there will be more warmness toward many others who had similar experiences.”

Source: AP