TOKYO (Reuters) - A man molests a young woman sitting next to him on a Japanese train, drags her to a restroom and rapes her while she sobs. Some 40 fellow passengers fail to intervene.
The case, which came to light with the suspect’s arrest last month, shocked the public and prompted soul-searching in the media, which said passengers may have told themselves it was a lovers’ fight but should have helped the woman.
Activists and lawyers say sentiment towards rape victims remains chilly in a society where many feel the woman may have led the man on, that she is lying or that she could have fought back.
Campaigns by women’s groups and legal changes have helped make it easier for rape victims in Japan to speak up and take legal action against perpetrators, but many still stay silent out of shame and fear of criticism.
“There is still widespread belief in ‘rape myths’,” said Masayo Niwa, an official at the Centre for Education and Support for Women, Japan, referring to the perception, contrary to law, that only assaults by strangers can be defined as “rape”.
“Victims don’t report cases because they think society can’t be trusted to believe them,” she said.
Some victims’ support groups estimate that rape cases in Japan amounted to more than 10 times the National Police Agency’s official figure of 1,948 last year.
Sex crimes against bar hostesses or other women working in entertainment districts are treated especially lightly, and are seldom reported to support groups, activists say.
Japanese property developer Joji Obara was sentenced to life in prison last month for serial rape of eight women and for drugging, raping and killing Australian bar hostess Carita Ridgway. But he was cleared of killing British bar hostess Lucie Blackman in a case that attracted international media attention.
“They did not take me and my boyfriend seriously,” Samantha Termini, Ridgway’s older sister and herself a former bar hostess, told a news conference of her initial efforts to get police to investigate Carita’s death.
Some lawyers say prison sentences and compensation fail to adequately reflect victims’ sufferings — a sign that rape continues to be viewed lightly in Japan’s male-dominated society.
Japan’s top government spokesman in 2003 was quoted as telling reporters in an off-the-record briefing that some women were asking to be raped by dressing provocatively — a remark that outraged many but failed to dent his political clout.
A legal revision in 2005 raised prison sentences for rape to a minimum three years and a maximum 20 years, but critics argue that the punishment is still too light considering the minimum sentence for robbery is five years.
In civil court cases, victims usually receive 20-30 million yen ($166,000-$250,000) in compensation.
“Compensation should be more, considering that rape is a crime that is as serious as attempted murder,” said lawyer Hitoshi Yamada, a former head of the Tokyo Bar Association’s committee on victim support.
Trials are often frustrating, Yamada added, with cases usually lacking hard evidence and courts having little understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which afflicts many victims.
Still, the system is slowly starting to change and more women are taking rape cases to court and reporting domestic violence.
Legislation since 2004 allows women to seek restraining orders against husbands who are not only physically abusive, but who inflict sexual abuse, including forced sex.
In court cases for rape, women can now be accompanied by a counselor and victims of sexual assault or rape can also testify from outside the courtroom through a video link.
In 2000, Japan also scrapped a rule that had prevented victims of sex crimes from launching a criminal case if six months had lapsed since identifying the suspect — a limit victims’ groups had fought for years to change.
“It’s become easier for victims to speak out,” said Yukiko Tsunosa, a lawyer who handles rape cases, although she added that there was still a long way to go. “Victims are now better protected when they take their case to criminal court.”