TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese journalist Shiori Ito on Wednesday won her civil lawsuit seeking damages from a prominent reporter who she said had raped her, a verdict welcomed by women’s rights advocates in a country where sexual assault victims often stay silent.
A Tokyo court ordered television journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi to pay 3.3 million yen ($30,375) in damages to Ito, a freelance journalist who has become a well-known face of Japan’s #MeToo movement, which has struggled to gain momentum.
Ito fought back tears as she spoke through a megaphone to reporters and supporters outside the court after the verdict.
“I’m so happy,” she said, her voice breaking at times with emotion. “It’s not over. Now, I have to deal with how I live with my scars.”
Ito, 30, had sought 11 million yen in damages for her suffering. Prosecutors had declined to indict Yamaguchi following her complaint to police that he had raped her while she was unconscious in 2015.
Ito made waves in 2017 when she took the rare step of going public with allegations that Yamaguchi, a senior television journalist known for his reporting on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had raped her after she met him for drinks to discuss an offer to help her find a job.
The court also ruled against a counter-suit by Yamaguchi, who has repeatedly denied the allegations, in which he sought 130 million yen in damages from Ito.
Yamaguchi told a news conference that he would appeal the verdict, saying he had done nothing illegal.
The court said in a summary of the verdict that the credibility of Ito’s account, in which she said she was forced to have sex while unconscious and despite resisting after she regained consciousness, was relatively high.
It also said there were grave doubts about the credibility of Yamaguchi’s statements, in which he said the sex was consensual.
In awarding the damages, the court said that Ito still suffered flashbacks and panic attacks as a result.
The court also said Ito’s decision to go public was intended to be in the public interest and did not violate Yamaguchi’s privacy.
Sexual assault victims in Japan often shy away from reporting incidents for fear of being blamed and humiliated.
Only 2.8% of women forced to have sex consulted police, a 2017 government survey showed.
Asked at a news conference what message she would like to convey to victims of sexual violence, Ito said: “You can take action any time. Surviving should be first and foremost.”
Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University, said the verdict would encourage more victims to speak out.
“It’s very empowering for a lot of women and will encourage more #MeToo voices,” she said.
Ito suggested in her book “Black Box” that she might have been given a “date rape” drug but that she had no way to know.
Yamaguchi wrote in a magazine article in 2017 that he had “neither seen nor heard of the date rape drugs” Ito mentioned and that she had been “overconfident about the amount of alcohol and drank too much”.
Ito also wrote in her book that she was forced to re-enact the alleged rape with a life-sized doll while male police watched. She did not identify the policemen.
Reuters could not confirm this incident, which was not touched upon in the summary of the court ruling. A spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police said the department could not immediately comment.
Ito has said she was also trolled on social media by critics.
The events formed the subject of a BBC documentary, “Japan’s Secret Shame”.
Ito wrote in her book that police had obtained an arrest warrant against Yamaguchi but it was not implemented.
She also wrote that the arrest was called off at the last minute by a senior police official.
Ito was an intern at Reuters during the time she said the rape occurred. She left Reuters in June 2015.
Prosecutors later decided not to bring charges. They do not give reasons for such decisions.
A civil judicial panel later rejected Ito’s appeal to force a prosecution, saying it had found no grounds to overturn the prosecutors’ decision.
At the time, opposition lawmakers questioned whether Yamaguchi had received special treatment because of his close ties to Abe.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has previously denied there were any irregularities regarding the case. On Wednesday, he declined to comment on the verdict but told a news conference that sexual violence was a violation of human rights and intolerable.
The head of the National Public Safety Commission, which oversees the police, also denied in parliament that there were any problems with the investigation, media reported at the time.
Legislators revised Japan’s century-old rape law in 2017 to include harsher penalties, including raising the minimum punishment for rapists to five years in prison from three.
The reforms, however, left intact controversial requirements that prosecutors must prove violence or intimidation was involved or that the victim was “incapable of resistance,” prompting calls from academics, activists and psychiatrists for further changes to make all non-consensual sex a crime.
Ito said on Wednesday that she hoped the law would be revised.
Additional reporting by Ami Miyazaki, Elaine Lies and Kaori Kaneko; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jane Wardell and Raju Gopalakrishnan