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Media silent over Japan's culture of sexual exploitation

Scandalous behavior that would make front-page news elsewhere is routinely ignored in Japan

Media silent over Japan's culture of sexual exploitation

People cross a street in Tokyo on May 20. Sexual scandals involving celebrities are often ignored by Japan's mainstream media. (Photo: AFP)

When it comes to sexual harassment in Japan, the image pops up of the stereotypical train molester or chikan — the deviant middle-aged man who gets his share of excitement by stealing women’s underwear from their balconies.

Even a policeman in Osaka was recently caught red-handed trying to sneak his smartphone under the skirt of a young girl. This type of sexual misconduct always makes front-page news, and it is so embedded in the culture that has been popularized in many manga, the comics so popular in Japan. One is the mythical Kappei, a very short high school student with amazing athletic abilities who has a particular craving for female undergarments, particularly white panties.

In Japan there’s a well-known concept regarding social behavior: honne vs tatemae. The first refers to the truth of one’s feelings, and as they often are contrary to what society expects — because potentially embarrassing — have to be kept hidden. The second translates to what needs to be shown outside in public, the moral mask.

In terms of sexual harassment, the chikan is the tatemae, what society is allowed to view, but what stays hidden are the real serial crimes, those that no one would expect in a country like Japan that holds itself to high moral standards. As we’ve seen again during the pandemic, the behavior of people unconditioned by enforced rules has been extremely cooperative, with only softly spoken guidance from the authorities.

A perfect example of the serial crimes that go hidden is something that should have been as widely known as the Harvey Weinstein case was in the US. But very few people have even heard of it. 

A popular female model recently gave a long confession on camera via Instagram about her experiences in showbiz which soon made its way to Twitter and YouTube. She talked about a celebrated Japanese host, now retired, who invited models and actresses onto his show on condition that they passed a test that required their willingness to “lie on his pillow" — makura eigyo, as the practice is known in Japan. 

It is a very good example of the power harassment that goes on behind the curtains in Japan

At the age of 18, she was cajoled into having sex with the 50-year-old TV show host, Shinsuke Shimada. The model at that time was at the beginning of her career and her agency basically acted as pimp by telling her that if she wanted a career she had to go with it. To smooth things out, famous comedian Tetsuro Degawa acted as a middle man, trying to “convert” the undecided.

Shinsuke retired some 10 years ago due to his ties to the yakuza (Japanese mafia), but Tetsuro Degawa is still in on TV with a popular show and promotes clothes brands like GAP.

In Japan celebrities get ostracized for being caught smoking weed, and for days their pictures and videos are shown on every TV station to signal to the public what a bad example they are. But apparently being at the forefront of a market for sexual exploitation of young women is fine. Why? Mostly because this huge scandal, which could have involved tens of young women barely over consent age, was hidden by the mainstream media. No one talked about it. No one dared to.

It is a very good example of the power harassment that goes on behind the curtains in Japan, but few have the guts to denounce it. When they do, they — not the perpetrators — are ostracized. No wonder the Me Too movement has had very little success in Japan.

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Sure, the people involved dismissed it all as rumors, but no one dared to bring the model to trial for defamation. Yet a few days later member of parliament and former NHK worker Takashi Tachibana came out with an hour-long video where he explained in detail how the national broadcaster NHK organized its most watched event of the year, national music contest Kouhaku Uta Gassen, which is watched by an astounding 35-40 percent of the public.

The public doesn't know until the show begins who the artists are. According to Tachibana, they are chosen in two ways: through cash gifts or young women being offered to top executives at NHK. These women, Tachibana explained, are handpicked from a pool of non-successful singers or idols, basically used as cannon fodder to satiate the lust of these top male managers.

Why isn’t this making the news? And where are the Japanese feminists, those who go on a rampage when they barely hear the words “gender gap.”

Newspapers like Asahi Shimbun (which recently made a “gender equality declaration”) and Mainichi Shimbun that make a big deal about supporting women have completely looked the other way. This is the level of media professionalism in the Land of the Rising Sun. No wonder the Japanese turn to Twitter and Instagram for their daily news feeds.

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