Japanese government panel finds rampant coverups, mishandling of harassment cases in military

TOKYO (AP) — A panel of experts that investigated harassment cases in Japan's military and Defense Ministry said Friday it found widespread coverups and reluctance among supervisors to deal with cases, and recommended fundamental improvements.

The investigation was commissioned by the ministry after a high-profile sexual assault case was brought by a former soldier.

The panel said about 80% of the reported cases involved abuse of power and that sexual harassment accounted for about 12%.

It said in a report that more than 60% of the victims in 1,325 cases reported to the panel never sought help from counselors in the military or ministry due to a lack of trust in the system or a fear of retribution.

The panel said many of the 400 people it interviewed who had sought help from supervisors or counselors said they did not receive appropriate help and faced coverups, pressure to drop cases, broken confidentiality or a lack of understanding.

The report urged the ministry and the military to raise awareness about harassment and introduce an appraisal system for those in supervisory positions that includes their handling of harassment cases, such as ensuring protection for victims and witnesses from retribution.

“In order to create an organization that does not tolerate harassment, we will firmly take steps based on the recommendation (in the report),” said Satoshi Mikai, head of the ministry’s staffing and education bureau, as he received the report.

Several damage suits have been filed recently against the government by former and serving personnel who said their sexual harassment cases were covered up or mishandled.

Former soldier Rina Gonoi demanded publicly last year that the Defense Ministry reinvestigate her case, saying she was repeatedly assaulted by several servicemen, causing her to abandon her military career. The military had dropped her case when she initially filed a complaint in 2021, saying there was insufficient evidence.

The army acknowledged her mistreatment last September after an internal probe and apologized. Four of the five perpetrators personally apologized a month later to Gonoi. The ministry in December dismissed the five servicemen and punished four others.

Gonoi filed a damage suit against the five perpetrators and the government in January, saying she felt their earlier apologies were insincere. She is seeking 5.5 million yen ($37,800) from the perpetrators and 2 million yen ($13,740) from the government, saying it failed to prevent the assaults, properly investigate or respond appropriately.

Separately, an air force serviceperson filed a lawsuit in February against the government seeking about 11.7 million yen ($75,600) in damages, saying it had failed to protect her from verbal sexual harassment from a male colleague and covered up the problem for more than a decade.