Ousting of councillor prompts concern over silencing sexual assault victims in Japan

A rural Japanese town voted its sole female councillor out of her seat after she accused its mayor of sexual assault. The public referendum over whether she had damaged the town’s reputation highlighted the backlash against women who come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.


The referendum on December 6 marked a stunning defeat for the first and only female member of Kusatsu’s town council.

With 2,542 votes for and 208 against, more than 90% of participants voted to recall councilwoman Shoko Arai for ‘’damaging the town’s reputation” after she alleged that the most powerful local politician had sexually assaulted her.

The unprecedented recall in a small town of 6,200 inhabitants, famous for its hot springs, drew national attention. 

Women’s rights activists said it served as an example of how women who come forward with allegations of sexual abuse are generally treated in Japan.

Others voiced concern over how the mayor and other council members orchestrated the recall – a democratic tool meant for holding elected officials to account for wrongdoing.

The event was also a reminder of the paucity of female representation in Japanese politics. The country ranks 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report.

Both sides claim victimhood  

The dispute started late last year, after Arai, 51, said in an e-book that the town’s mayor, Nobutada Kuroiwa, had forced her to have sex in his office back in 2015.

She later explained that she did not report the assault to the police at the time because she feared a backlash, but then decided to speak out to defend other women ‘’who were treated like objects” and often shamed into submission.

Kuroiwa, 73, denied the claim, and accused her of trying to tarnish his name for political reasons. He filed a criminal complaint and a civil lawsuit for defamation. In Japan, a person can be prosecuted if they defame another by alleging facts in public, regardless of whether such facts are true or false (Criminal Code Article 230-1).

The mayor, who presides over the town council, then took the issue to the assembly, urging Arai to provide evidence. 

During one session, he presented an enlarged photo of his office and pressed her to recount exactly how the alleged assault took place. Arai refused.  

The council then voted to expel the councillor for ‘’degrading’’ the assembly. When that decision was overturned by prefectural authorities, Kuroiwa and his allies gathered enough signatures to hold a recall election on Arai’s position and waged a fierce campaign for a ‘’yes’’ vote. 

‘Second rape’

Arai’s supporters and women’s rights activists said the way the town’s politicians labelled her a liar and relentlessly tried to discredit her amounted to a “second rape”.

The town council posted videos of some assembly sessions online showing how Arai, citing ongoing legal procedures, refused to provide evidence her colleagues demanded.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, dozens of posters accusing her of harming the town’s reputation “through her words and deeds” popped up around the town, including at bus stops, hotels and public car parks.

Writer Minori Kitahara, who observed one of the Kusatsu assembly meetings, said: ‘’Even if the mayor didn’t commit the alleged crime, the assembly itself was full of sexual violence and misogyny.’’

It is rare in Japan for victims of sexual assault to come forward with their stories. A 2017 government survey showed only 2.8% of female rape victims sought help from the police while 59% said they did not tell anyone. 

According to the UN, one in three women around the world has experienced physical or sexual violence at one point in their lives but fewer than 40% sought help. Of those, only 10% went to the police.

The low figures in Japan may be attributed in part to high legal hurdles. Under Japanese law, the burden of proof in sexual violence cases lies with the victim. Societal pressure to avoid embarrassment for oneself and others, as well as widespread victim-blaming, also make it difficult for victims to speak out.

In 2018, a senior finance ministry official resigned after a TV journalist accused him of sexual harassment. The journalist had taken her story to a magazine after her own bosses at work advised her to remain silent.

Shiori Ito, another journalist who became a symbol of the country’s #MeToo movement after accusing a well-known TV reporter of rape, was met with an enormous backlash. Although no criminal charges were brought against the alleged aggressor, she won compensation in a civil lawsuit and is suing a female cartoonist over a series of Twitter posts which she said smeared her after she went public with her story. 

Earlier this year, Mio Sugita, a conservative female MP from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, came under fire after she was quoted as saying ‘’women can tell lies as much as they want’’ during a discussion about sexual violence. Her remark prompted the party to reprimand her.       

‘100% a lie’

Kusatsu’s mayor defended his efforts to oust the councillor, saying her story is ‘’100% a lie and fabrication”.

He told FRANCE 24 that while judicial investigations had yet to conclude, a recall vote was necessary ‘’to stop her from continuing to spread falsehood around the world’’. 

“It wasn’t my personal reputation that was at stake,” Kuroiwa said. “She was damaging the image of Kusatsu.  92.4% of the voters rejected her. It shows how much she has angered the town’s residents.”

Arai stands by her allegation. In an emailed statement, she said the referendum was unfair and suggested that the voters were under pressure to back the mayor and other councillors, who are also influential businessmen.

‘’This campaign was spearheaded by the people in power,” she said. “It goes against the principle of a recall, which is meant as a way for ordinary citizens to say whether a politician is unfit for office.’’

Abuse of a democratic tool?

Legal experts have also questioned the way the town’s politicians tried to remove her, first by a vote in the assembly then through a popular referendum.

Yuko Hayata, a member of a group of lawyers defending civil rights and freedoms, said it was a thinly veiled attempt by the mayor and his allies to decide whether Arai had lied or not by majority rule.

“The facts need to be established through judicial investigations, not by a popular vote. Sex crimes are a human rights issue. The voice of an alleged victim should not be suppressed by the power of the majority,’’ she told FRANCE 24 in an email.     

In a tweet, Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hosei University, called the move ‘’autocracy by the majority’’.

An online petition against the recall, launched by Arai before the vote took place, has so far gathered more than 15,000 signatures.

Arai will hold a press conference on Friday following a similar move by Kuroiwa earlier this week.

She has said she will consider taking legal action without giving further details, and that she is willing to fully cooperate with the police in the defamation case filed by the mayor.

Source: Thanks france24