Sexual Violence Common At Japanese Shelters After Earthquake

(Reporting from Yokohama)

Sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape are some of the atrocities being committed at shelters across the affected area of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, according to gender equality advocates. The victims are often too frightened to report the crimes to the authorities, which is further complicated by a culture and belief system which expects their members to conform to their circumstances.

Yuka Suzuki is an advocate with a woman’s organization in Saitama Prefecture, just outside Tokyo. Her name has been changed to protect her from possible retaliation. Suzuki’s group has been trying to raise awareness of the problems women in the Tohoku and Fukushima region are facing. She has reached out to the press, government officials, and anyone who would listen, but to little or no avail. “It’s would bring too much shame,” Suzuki told the News Junkie Post. “The Japanese media is ignoring it.”

According to Suzuki, her group has knowledge of over 100 cases of women who have been victims of sexual violence at the shelters. She believes that there are a lot more cases, but that the women don’t want to come forth. Still, through group awareness campaigns, more women are beginning to call the helpline. “The calls have been increasing,” she said. “People are beginning to talk about their stories and experiences.”

There were 470,000 people who were displaced from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The death toll remains at 15,859 dead and 3,021 are still missing, according to government reports. There are hundreds of shelters that have been set up across the Tohoku and Fukushima regions, many of them are at schools and gymnasiums.

“The management at those shelters is all men,” Suzuki said. “Women don’t feel safe there. There is no privacy and they can’t really talk to anyone.”

Japan ranks a really low #98 in the World Economic Forum’s list of countries with the biggest gender gaps. Countries with narrower gender gaps include, Iceland (#1) and Norway (#2). The U.S. ranks (#17). Japan is just one place above Kenya (#99) in the list.

The Japanese government has been wrestling for years with the inequality and treatment of women in the workplace and society overall, but policies aiming at improving the problem have been mostly unsuccessful. Domestic violence is also a big problem which remains all but taboo in this industrialized nation.

In the Tohoku and Fukushima region, where the earthquake and tsunami did the most damage, Japanese women are subjected to the dominance of their husbands and their in-laws. “Many of the women want to leave the disaster areas because they are afraid of the radiation, but their husbands and in-laws don’t let them,” Suzuki said. “The families think that they won’t be able to find work elsewhere, so they stay.”

Indeed, jobs in the affected regions are high, but they are mostly in the construction sector which prefers men. “The men are stronger and so they get the jobs,” Suzuki said. Ironically, many men are refusing to work and have chosen instead to rely on the government’s monthly aid of 300,000 yen, which is the equivalent of $3,350. That is the average financial aid for a family of four. “The men go out at night and spend all the money and the women can’t do anything,” Suzuki said.

Discrimination against women and sexual violence was also reported after the Kobe Earthquake in 1997. Many groups have over time been trying to make the “embarrassing” issue public, but the media which is often controlled by the government through “press clubs” has seldom taken interest in these type of stories. Suzuki hopes that foreign journalist will be the last resort to shinning light on this terrible problem. She hopes that international pressure, especially from Japan’s biggest ally, the U.S. will make the Japanese government take action to remedy the problems at the shelters.

Several counseling hotlines and centers have been set up for women across the affected regions, but they can’t do much to attract the women who are too afraid to speak up or be seen going in for help. “The husbands and in-laws won’t let them go. They have to sneak in without being seen,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki believes that as time goes by and the news cycle forgets about the March 11 tragedy in Japan, the women will be doomed to living in fear for many more months or years to come. “I talked to a friend in Morioka yesterday, she told me ‘please don’t forget us,’” Suzuki said tearfully. “I can’t forget them.”





2 Responses to Sexual Violence Common At Japanese Shelters After Earthquake

  1. Gilbert Mercier
    +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Gilbert Mercier
    July 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks for this great report, Dolores! And welcome back.

    • Dolores M. Bernal
      +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Dolores M. Bernal
      July 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      Thank you Gilbert.