She dreamed of defending Japan. Instead, her fellow soldiers sexually assaulted her

She dreamed of defending Japan. Instead, her fellow soldiers sexually assaulted her

Tokyo CNN

Rina Gonoi has a fighting spirit.

I am a former soldier and judo instructor, and I fight for all women, to hold those responsible who have sexually abused me accountable.

Gonoi says that during her time in the Japan Self-Defense Force, she suffered daily verbal and physical sexual abuse. She vowed to bring to justice those who tormented her.

At first, the authorities did not seem to want to believe her. Two investigations were opened after she complained to the military authorities about the alleged abuse, but were both dropped due to lack of evidence.

She approached the TV stations, undefeated. She took to social media when they refused to listen. This is a rare thing in a nation where survivors of sexual assault can be punished for speaking out.

'I also wanted to support other women who were sexually harassed in the JSDF. She said that she wanted the perpetrators to apologize and admit their wrongdoing. I also wanted others to avoid going through what she had gone through.

Gonoi refused to be silent, and her refusal sparked a broad investigation into sexual harassment in the JSDF. Prosecutors reopened a previous investigation which found that she was subjected to physical and verbal harassment every day between fall 2020 and august 2021.

The findings led to a momentous event: the rare admission of responsibility and public apology by Japan's Ministry of Defense. Yoshihide Yoshida, Chief of Staff of the Ground Self-Defense Forces bowed his head deeply to say: "On behalf of Ground Self-Defense Forces I would like express my most sincere apologies for Ms. Gonoi who has suffered for a very long time." I am sorry.

NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, reported that five servicemen were dishonorably discharged and four others punished in December. Gonoi said that she also received personal apologies in person from several officers.

She said that this was not enough and is now pursuing criminal and civil cases before the courts. She filed lawsuits at the beginning of the year against the government, and three of her alleged attackers - who were indicted on charges of sexually abusing Gonoi in March. To date, neither the defendants or their lawyers have made any statements in the criminal case. The public prosecutors of Japan have not provided any information about the case, and they did not respond CNN's requests for comments. In the civil case four of the five accusers recently denied the allegations, while the fifth one admitted it.

The state responded by saying that harassment "cannot be tolerated" but has yet to comment on Gonoi’s lawsuit.

Gonoi, despite the results of these lawsuits believes that there is still a larger battle to fight against what she perceives as a male-dominated culture of sexual harassment.

Speaking up

The struggles of Japan with gender equality, highlighted by the #MeToo movement, are well documented. In the World Economic Forum index of gender inequality, Japan ranks last among the G7 countries and 116th overall out of 146.

Gonoi's experiences are likely to be especially damaging for the JSDF. The JSDF has spent a lot of time and effort in promoting itself as an organization that promotes equality between men and women.

Fumika Sato is a sociologist from Hitotsubashi University. She said that many women join the military because they believe it offers greater job security, and equality for men and women, than the private sector.

'(Women choose the JSDF) because they believe it is an organisation that will fairly recognize their abilities. Sato stated that it is rare to hear women say they joined the JSDF to defend their country.

Gonoi, for example, joined the ground force in April 2020. She saw it as both a means of "paying it forward" and also as a method of realizing her dream of becoming a judoka, competing at the Olympics.

Sato, despite the JSDF’s image, said that sexual harassment has been a problem within its ranks for a long time. However it is hidden by the military because they are reluctant to admit their vulnerability.

Sato said that there is a perception that only the strongest people are suitable for an organization and that those who claim to be victims of harassment do not belong in it. "That makes people reluctant to speak up."

Recruitment Shortfall

Gonoi's battle also comes at a time when the JSDF is facing a shortage of recruits, which undermines its efforts to build its military in light of rising tensions between North Korea and China.

The Japanese announced last year that they would increase their defense budget by 26% to 6.8 trillion yen (55 billion dollars) for 2023. This will bring the defense spending up to 2% GDP by 2027.

Experts believe that attracting women is key to Tokyo achieving its goals. The JSDF was supposed to have a total of 250,000 members, but it has failed to meet its recruitment targets and is currently understaffed by 16,000 members.

In line with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "womenomics" policy, the force has been trying to encourage women's enrollment for years. This is in response to the effects of Japan’s shrinking workforce and aging population. The Defense Ministry launched a number of initiatives that included funding for gender awareness programs and daycare centers for the children of JSDF personnel in April 2015.

But Japan is still behind its peers. According to the Defense Ministry's estimates, the JSDF will have 20,000 women by March 2022. This represents around 8%, which is still below the NATO average, which was 12% in 2019. Tokyo must reach out to more women in order to achieve this threshold by 2030.

A spokesperson from Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force said to CNN: 'We think that promoting female SDF personnel will help us maintain high-quality personnel and incorporate diversity in the organization.' The SDF is actively recruiting female SDF personnel in order to increase the percentage of women among all SDF members to at least 12% by the fiscal year 2030.

Setbacks for Progress

The JSDF is making progress. When the JSDF was formed in 1954, it recruited women exclusively as nurses.

In 1977, the Japanese navy hired its first female recruits. In the early 1990s women were allowed to fill most jobs, except for those that required combat.

The National Defense Academy in Japan finally accepted women in 1992. This allowed them to advance their careers and become senior officers. Since 1992, women have taken the lead. In March 2018, the Japanese navy appointed its first female commander of a squadron. In the same year, Japan appointed its first female fighter pilot.

Gonoi, as a child saw JSDF officers as heroes. She wanted to be just like them when women officers, in particular, came to her aid after the 2011 Tohoku quake and tsunami that devastated her hometown Higashi-Matsushima.

She said that Gonoi was amazed at the way JSDF members had helped restore a sense normality to citizens, by providing them with makeshift bathing areas, for example. This human touch was what sold the young Gonoi.

A dream dashed

She told CNN that it was at a JSDF post in Fukushima, another area decimated by 2011's disaster, where she experienced her first sexual harassment.

They would comment on the size of my breasts and my body. They would come up to hug me suddenly in the hallways. Gonoi remembered that this kind of thing was happening daily.

In August 2021, Gonoi claimed that she was pinned down on a dormitory's floor while several senior male officers pretended to have a sexual encounter. This incident was what convinced her to report her attackers.

Gonoi's allegations were not taken seriously and no internal action was taken by the JSDF.

They initially refused to admit they had done anything wrong. The first thing they did was to try and cover up the fact that I had been through. But then, a new investigation was ordered. Then they confessed what I had been through', said Gonoi.

A second external investigation was dropped for a 'lack' of evidence, as no male witnesses to her sexual assault were willing to testify.

Gonoi said that she finally felt she had no choice but to leave in June 2022.

Sato, a sociologist, stated that Gonoi was only able to influence the JSDF to reconsider its position by using social media to make her case known.

The Defense Ministry did what it has always done, which was to take the side of perpetrators while isolating victims. Sato stated that the public's outrage was so great, and surprised so many in the Defense Ministry that they realized if they did not take the proper actions, their reputation would be at risk.

The Defense Ministry has been working to improve its public image in recent months. Yasukazu Hamida, Japan's defense minister, said in March that harassment shook the foundations and mutual trust of the JSDF.

According to a spokesperson from the Ground Self-Defense Force, CNN reported that 'Harassment violates basic human rights. It is not allowed in the Ground SDF where unit actions form the basis. This causes mutual distrust and undermines the strength and morale of personnel.

'For this, the GSDF actively participates in various efforts to eliminate harassment based upon the Minister's directive. It is also carefully implementing such measures as education for its officers and others.

"To this end, We will continue to implement Measures such as Group Education and E-Learning to raise awareness among personnel, Education to promote understanding and to improve the leadership abilities of personnel (especially Managers) and to improve and strengthen the Consultation System."

Now that the battle has been won, it is time to wage war

Gonoi told CNN that she re-thought her decision before raising her voice.

Gonoi explained that if you speak up, you run the risk of being slandered and beaten, even though your suffering is real.

But she didn't back down.

Initially, the JSDF did not admit to any wrongdoing. They tried to hide what I had gone through. But after a reinvestigation, they finally admitted it.

In a meeting of the Japanese Parliament, Fumio Kishida, the Prime Minister of Japan at the time, said that he believed the Self-Defense Force (SDF) and Ministry of Defense handled sexual harassment cases in an inappropriate manner.

He said that while harassment should not be tolerated 'in any organization', there were instances of cover-ups.

He said that the Defense Ministry and government are committed to eliminating all forms of harassment.

We are aware of the fact that perpetrators in sexual harassment cases will be severely punished. A special inspection is being conducted to identify all forms of harassment. He said that we are committed to eliminating all forms of harassment.

Gonoi told a press conference in the past that three of her attackers knelt on their knees and apologized after she had received an apology from four of them. She said that the perpetrators apologized for their actions, repeatedly bowed down their heads and one of them was even crying.

'When I first joined the JSDF I had many dreams about what I hoped to achieve. If the JSDF had fully investigated what happened, I still feel that I could have stayed. She said, 'Everything came too late.

Gonoi, who says she is not after money but rather a sincere apology, decided to file both a criminal and civil case. She did this because she was looking for a genuine apology.

In the civil case four of the five plaintiffs denied the allegations, whereas a fifth did. Gonoi told reporters that he felt many emotions after the hearing - frustration, anger and sadness. I knew their apology was a mere formality.

The government is also continuing to take 'dramatic measures' to create an environment where harassment will not be tolerated.

Gonoi says she is still receiving abuse from users on social media. Some comment on her appearance, while others accuse her of tarnishing JSDF’s reputation.

She is still having flashbacks and has been battling depression, but she's grateful for all the support that was given to her on social media.

She wants the JSDF educate its forces on harassment as a criminal offense, install surveillance cameras, and not leave women officers alone in situations when they are outnumbered by their male colleagues.

She said that she still has faith in the JSDF. She wants the JSDF to be safer so that new recruits won't have to go through what she went through. She wants to continue practicing judo and travel.

Gonoi stated that 'in Japan, there is a view that one cannot laugh or enjoy themselves after being a victim. But I do not want my life defined by this'.

"I'm happy I joined the SDF, and was able work for my nation. It wasn't bad, and I want to continue living my life normally.