Rina Gonoi: Former Japanese soldier reaches agreement with perpetrators of sexual assault

Rina Gonoi: Former Japanese soldier reaches agreement with perpetrators of sexual assault

Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images/File

Prosecutors reopened an investigation that found that Rina Gonoi, a former member of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, suffered daily physical and verbal sexual harassment between fall 2020 and August 2021.

Tokyo/ Hong Kong

A former soldier who was sexually abused while serving in the Japanese military has reached a civil settlement with three of her convicted abusers. The case brought to light a widespread culture of harassment within the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

The settlement, initiated by the three former soldiers who were found guilty of sexual assault by a Japanese court in December, includes an apology and the payment of a sum of money, Rina Gonoi announced on her X account on Tuesday. She did not disclose the amount.

“Today I would like to announce that an agreement has been reached in the civil case with the three perpetrators who were found guilty in the criminal case,” Gonoi said.

Gonoi has filed both criminal and civil cases in court, including a civil lawsuit seeking compensation from the government and five former members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) for the emotional distress caused by the sexual abuse, public broadcaster NHK reported.

“I am relieved that the three years of struggle are over and I suddenly feel the exhaustion of three years, but I will be careful not to get sick,” Gonoi said on her Instagram account on Tuesday evening.

It had previously reached a settlement with another of the five former JSDF members in the civil case, and the trial against the government and the remaining former members will continue, NHK reported.

Yoshiaki Saito, a lawyer representing the three soldiers, told CNN on Wednesday that there was no comment. CNN has also reached out to Japan’s Defense Ministry and the JSDF for comment.

Gonoi said she endured daily physical and verbal sexual abuse for over a year while serving in the JSDF and vowed to bring her tormentors to justice when she leaves the military in June 2022.

Authorities initially seemed reluctant to believe her, but Gonoi’s refusal to be silenced eventually led prosecutors to reopen the investigation as part of a broader probe into sexual harassment throughout the JSDF.

“I wanted to help other people who were also sexually harassed (in the JSDF). As for the perpetrators, I wanted an apology and for them to admit what they did. I wanted to prevent others from going through what I went through. That’s why I spoke about it,” Gonoi told CNN last July.

The comprehensive investigation led by the Japanese Ministry of Defense found that Gonoi was subjected to daily physical and verbal sexual harassment between late 2020 and August 2021.

Japan’s problems with gender inequality, which came to the fore during the #MeToo campaign, are well documented. The country ranks last among all G7 countries and 125th out of 146 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Inequality Index.

Gonoi said she saw the JSDF members as heroes, and she grew up wanting to be like them after mostly female police officers came to her aid following the deadly 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated her hometown of Higashi-Matsushima in Japan’s northern Miyagi prefecture.

Years later, she was transferred to a JSDF station in Fukushima – another area badly devastated by the 2011 disaster – where she experienced sexual harassment for the first time, according to CNN.

“They would make comments about my body and the size of my breasts. Or they would come up to me in the hallway and suddenly hug me in the hallway. That sort of thing happened every day,” Gonoi recalls her time at the station.

The last straw came in August 2021, when Gonoi said she was pushed to the floor of a dormitory while several senior male officials simulated sexual intercourse. It was this incident that led her to report her attackers.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images/File

Rina Gonoi speaks to the media after the Fukushima Court found three perpetrators guilty of “forced indecency” against her while serving with the JSDF on December 12, 2023.

When she reported the alleged abuse to military authorities, two investigations were launched, but both were closed due to a lack of evidence. She then took her fight to social media.

Going public was an unusual step in a country where victims of sexual violence face severe reprisals if they raise their voices.

But it was worth it, because careful observation on social media forced the JSDF to rethink its approach.

The Ministry of Defense eventually launched a comprehensive investigation into sexual harassment in the JSDF. It found that Gonoi had been subjected to daily physical and verbal sexual harassment between late 2020 and August 2021.

The case reached the highest level. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stated during a parliamentary session in October 2022 that he understood that cases of sexual harassment were being handled inappropriately by the JSDF and the ministry.

Last December, a Japanese court ruled that the three men had sexually abused Gonoi.

The court sentenced the trio to two years in prison, suspended, NHK reported, allowing them to avoid prison if they do not commit a crime within two years.

The landmark decision is an encouraging sign, but “the country still has a long way to go to change both the criminal justice system and the culture of victim-blaming that undermines the credibility of survivors,” said Boram Jang, Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher.

“Rina Gonoi dared to raise her voice to break the cycle of impunity for gender-based violence in Japan. This is a rare victory, not only for her, but for all victims and survivors of sexual assault in Japan, many of whom suffer in silence,” Jang said in a statement after the verdict.