April 2023

Survivors of sexual abuse pressure governments ahead of Japan G7 summit

The day before she graduated from middle school, Ikuko Ishida, then 15 years old, was invited by her fine arts teacher to visit an art museum.

“I was happy, because I respected him. I thought he respected me, too, and wanted me to study more,” said Ishida, who is from Sapporo. But during the museum visit, the teacher told Ishida that he “loved” her and sexually harassed her.

Ishida had been brought up to obey her teachers and was not mature enough to fully understand what was going on. The same teacher continued to abuse her for the next four years.

Like many teenage survivors of abuse, Ishida did not initially realize that she had been the victim of a sexual crime. “I had no comprehension of teachers doing bad things, especially committing crimes,” she said.

Years after she graduated from high school, Ishida did not tell anyone about her experiences. She said she did not find the courage to speak out until she was 37.

Now, Ishida and other survivors are calling on the G7 interior ministers, who will meet in Japan in May, to turn their commitments and words into bold and transformative action to end children’s sexual abuse in Japan and overseas.       

Victim support groups are calling for sexual offenses to be renamed to send a clear message that perpetrators will face strict punishments.

The Justice Ministry is currently working on amendments to the Penal Code, which also include raising the age of consent from 13 - the lowest among developed countries – to 16.    

Ishida, now 46, is the founder of Be Brave Japan, the Japanese chapter of a global coalition of survivors and people who were victims of or witnesses to sexual abuse as children, or who knew a loved one who was abused.

Apart from the victims of child sexual abuse, the movement is supported by doctors, lawyers, counselors, children’s rights advocates and other experts, as well as the family and friends of victims.      

A petition named #BeBrave has launched by eight sexual abuse survivors from G7 countries who traveled to Japan last November. The petition had gathered more than 82,000 signatures as of late March.

Among the Be Brave supporters are people connected to law enforcement who spent years investigating criminals charged with sexually assaulting and abusing children.

Robert Shilling is a decorated police officer from Seattle, Washington, who has dedicated his life to protecting children. As a child sexual abuse survivor himself, Shilling believes survivors can have a real impact in addressing child sexual abuse. 

His mother was left with four children  - three girls and one boy – and had to move in with her parents. As the only boy, Shilling had to share a room and a bed with his grandfather, who sexually abused him for four years.

“He was somebody I loved and respected,” Shilling said. “We did all kinds of fun things together and then he abused that position of trust and authority. I can honestly say that the effects of sexual abuse last a lifetime.”         

Shilling served with Interpol for 17 years, the last four of which he spent at its headquarters in Lyon, France. He saw how sexual abuse can damage a victim’s mental health. “I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder not only from the abuse, which was the primary trauma, but also from the years of service with the police department.”            

Speaking out about experiencing sexual abuse as a child is largely a taboo subject in Japan.

Regardless of their age at the time of the first incident, victims are often confronted with the question: Why did you wait so long to report the crime? Ishida, however, says it is normal for sexual abuse survivors to wait to speak out, especially if they were young at the time the crime was committed. 

She reported her former teacher to the Sapporo municipal board of education, but officials were reluctant to investigate, according to Ishida. 

Although the statue of limitations had run out, Ishida persevered and launched a a civil lawsuit against the Sapporo municipal government three years ago. She lost the suit against the city, but the court ruled that she had been the victim of sexual abuse. The teacher was eventually fired from his job, 28 years after he first abused Ishida.

The experience has left her angry, and disappointed with the board of education. “They are not being honest, and they are not interested in serving children,” she said.  

Ilgin Yorulmaz is a freelance reporter for BBC World Turkish and serves as the 2nd Vice President of the FCCJ.