Japanese ex-soldier wins battle for justice in landmark sexual assault case

By Sakura Murakami

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) -A Japanese court on Tuesday found three former soldiers guilty of sexually assaulting a female colleague, in a victory for the victim whose battle for justice challenged taboos in a traditional, male-dominated society.

The case of 24-year-old former Self-Defense Forces member Rina Gonoi relates to a 2021 incident during her time in the army when she said she was pinned down by three male colleagues who simulated a sex act on her.

The defendants denied that their acts amounted to sexual assault.

The men, aged from 29 to 31, seemed to show little expression as the judge read out his verdict, giving them each a suspended sentence of two years.

“I think it was good for Japan’s society that the court handed down a guilty verdict and accepted the claims that I’ve made from the very beginning,” Gonoi told reporters outside the district court in Fukushima, about 250 kilometres (155 miles)north of Tokyo.

“(The verdict) shows that it’s not OK to do things for a laugh, that such acts are an actual crime,” she said, pausing mid-sentence to retain her composure.

Gonoi, who said she was subjected to persistent harassment after enlisting in 2020, alleged that the three men pinned her to the ground, pulled her legs apart and pressed their crotches against her in simulation of a sex act.

She complained to her superiors at the time of the incident but later decided to leave the army when no action was taken.

After Gonoi went public with her accusations in 2022, a rare move in a conservative society where speaking out against sexual violence has remained largely taboo, Japan’s defence ministry issued a public apology.

The ministry also announced that five men connected to the incident had been dismissed and four others punished, and began a widespread survey of harassment in the military and military-linked entities that found more than 1400 complaints.

Her battle attracted international recognition: Time Magazine named her on its list of 100 emerging world leaders while the British Broadcasting Corp included her among its 100 most influential women globally.

But at home she has also been the target of online vitriol.

“The hurdles are incredibly high in Japan to be able to come out publicly and that has to do with…the kind of backlash a woman gets when she speaks out about these issues,” said Chelsea Szendi Schieder, a professor of Japanese history at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University.

“It is a really important verdict that I hope has a lot of organisations within Japan re-evaluating their internal systems.”

Gonoi has also lodged a civil case against her former peers and the government, seeking damages for the alleged assault and the subsequent inaction despite her complaints.

The cases come at an awkward time for Japan, which is trying to recruit more women soldiers into its forces and build up its military to deter an increasingly assertive China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami in Fukushima; Additional reporting by Tom Bateman in Tokyo; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Edmund Klamann)