Japan's women fight harassers

November 3, 1995

Japan's increasingly assertive female students are taking to the streets to demonstrate against sexual harassment which they say involves verbal abuse as well as physical attacks.

Several hundred students and lecturers from Kyoto University recently took part in a noisy demonstration against sexual harassment, while hundreds of female undergraduates marched through Tokyo's main business district to denounce sexual harassment and job discrimination in large companies.

The Kyoto University protest followed the much publicised case of a leading faculty head who was accused of sexually attacking a female member of the university staff. The Kyoto Bar Association's human rights protection committee heard that the woman had been allegedly beaten and raped by the academic.

Although the professor denied the charges he resigned from his post and took refuge in a temple on the outskirts of Kyoto.

The publicity attracted by the case has encouraged other female students to speak out against tutors and students who sexually harass them. Protest groups at several universities say that sexual violence and verbal harassment on university campuses is violating female students' human rights and discouraging women from pursuing their studies.

Protest groups are also calling for university authorities to do more to provide a safe environment for female students and to promote awareness of the problem of sexual harassment on university campuses.

Part of the difficulty, according to student Sayaka Yamagiwa, is that women remain a minority on the campuses of many top universities. "Despite the equal opportunities legislation of the 1980s women are still discouraged by parents, teachers and employers from entering elite universities," she says.

Female students take up less than 20 per cent of the places at top universities and more than 90 per cent of the places at the lower status junior colleges.

Female university lecturers are also greatly outnumbered by their male colleagues. Kyoto University, one of Japan's highest-ranked universities, has fewer than 100 female professors, lecturers and assistants out of a total teaching staff of 2,600.

Students such as Sayaka Yamagiwa believe the problem of sexual harassment on university campuses is much greater than many people realise. "A female victim of harassment is often unwilling to report an incident because of the possible repercussions the ensuing scandal may have on her future job prospects," Yamagiwa says.

Yamagiwa, and other members of campus women's groups, also say that female students who have been sexually harassed are often held partly responsible for the attacks.

Akiko Murako a student from Kyoto, says: "Victims wearing tight skirts and low necklines are frequently accused of encouraging their harassers. Women in Japan often choose to accept sexual violence and abuse as uncomfortable facts of life rather than speak out against them."

Certainly when the Kyoto University case hit the headlines a spate of letters from women who had been sexually harassed appeared in campus newspapers and magazines. Several correspondents claimed that progress with their degree courses was made conditional on them having sexual relationships with their lecturers.

"Some male lecturers are undoubtedly abusing their positions," one student wrote.

Kazuko Ono, a professor at the Institute of Research in Humanities at Kyoto University, believes the establishment of procedures for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment on Japanese campuses is urgently required.

She says: "The campus is a place where sexual harassment can easily occur because lecturers have such overwhelming power over their students and assistants."

Professor Ono has also called for schools and universities to do more to draw attention to the problem of sexual harassment and to provide the sort of education which will help to change male attitudes towards women.

Some universities are already offering new courses on women's issues. Osaka University provides a series of lectures for the women's studies' component of its general studies course while Okayama University offers a course called "Women and Men: an Interdisciplinary Approach".

Kazuko Watanabe, a lecturer in English literature at Kyoto Sangyo University, has established a women's studies network. She says: "An understanding of issues such as career discrimination against women demands an understanding of economics, law and education. Women's studies is not a viable field of research if limited to one department."

newsinternational John Greenlees

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