Japan Media Watch | November 2022

Recruit exposes widespread sexual harassment in the Self-Defense Forces

Screenshot - Rina Gonoi on ABEMA NEWS

Earlier this year, the weekly magazine Aera broke the story of a female Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) recruit who said she had been sexually assaulted by male colleagues. Rina Gonoi had reported the assault to her superiors, who essentially ignored her, and then she filed a report with an investigative body within the Self-Defense Forces, which refused to bring any charges against the alleged perpetrators. Moreover, her superiors told her to not talk about the alleged harassment. After Gonoi quit the GSDF in frustration in June she explained her situation publicly on YouTube, showing her face and revealing her name. It was then that Aera interviewed her.

The financial news website President Online recently summarized the coverage of Gonoi's story on, which after the Gonoi interview widened that coverage to the issue of SDF harassment in general. Gonoi was clear that, despite the online criticism she expected and, in fact, received, she was willing to go public to “help current female members of the SDF,” whom she said were subjected to sexual harassment on a daily basis. Gonoi's story has since been reported widely by the mainstream media, but the reality sexual harassment in the SDF remains shrouded in mystery due to the way the organisation operates.

According to Aera and President, Gonoi, who grew up in Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan, joined the GSDF in April 2020, aged 20. It was something she had wanted to do since she was a child. Her elementary school was almost destroyed by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, and following the disaster, which made her home uninhabitable, she and her family lived in various temporary accommodations. During this time, she was impressed by the female SDF members who assisted evacuees, and she often talked to them. When she told them she was training to be a judo-ka, they mentioned that the SDF had a judo program.

At the encouragement of her SDF mentors, Gonoi advanced steadily in scholastic judo competitions and eventually became a national contender. She enrolled at Yamaguchi Prefectural University but retained her dream of joining the SDF, mainly because she understood that SDF judo-ka had a better chance of competing in the Olympics. She left school and joined the SDF, hoping to become an official SDF athlete. 

Before that she had to undergo basic training. That went smoothly, but things went downhill after she was assigned as a private first class to Camp Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture. An older female recruit warned her that the 58-member squadron to which she'd been assigned, and which contained five other women at the time, had a reputation for sexual and power harassment. Almost immediately, the reality of the situation made itself apparent. When male squadron members learned she was a judo-ka, they would ask to spar with her and often ended up in tight clutches. Sometimes, men would just come up to her in the hallway and embrace without asking. Other women witnessed these occurrences and said nothing, but privately they would complain among themselves. Gonoi was told that the only thing she could do was to try and protect herself. 

Matters intensified when her squadron underwent mountain training in June 2021. Gonoi was in charge of meals, which were prepared in a tent that only held about three people. Men were always coming into the tent to drink and sometimes the tent would get crowded with drunk recruits. Invariably, the men would start touching her, trying to kiss her and squeeze her breasts. Some would place her hand on their crotches. She sent messages to her female colleagues asking for help, but no one came to her rescue. 

Gonoi soon understood that this sort of behavior was commonplace, and that many women had quit the SDF because of it. Men in the SDF explained such behavior as being a means of “relieving stress,” and that's how it seemed to be accepted by those higher up in the chain of command. However, Gonoi continually resisted the attention and “became a problem” for the squadron, according to the President article. She was "destroying the group's harmony," and paid for it. On another occasion in the SDF dormitory, Gonoi was preparing a meal when her male colleagues insisted she attend a drinking party they were having. They started talking about martial arts and one wanted to demonstrate a defensive move on Gonoi. He held her by the neck and threw her down on some bedding, opened her legs and then pressed his groin against hers and started grinding away while the other men in the room laughed. At least two others did the same thing. Though Gonoi resisted, multiple men held her down. 

When she first reported the incident to a female superior, the woman commiserated, but when the woman brought the matter to a male officer, he dismissed the incident as trivial. Gonoi decided to take time off, and a doctor diagnosed her with adjustment disorder (the same disability that reportedly afflicts Empress Masako), granting her sick leave. 

She subsequently reported the attack to internal affairs, which said they could not verify her story with witnesses. She then asked the military police in charge of investigating crimes within the SDF to look into her claims of sexual assault. The MPs even conducted a recreation of the incident using dolls, but later announced that no charges would be filed because the men they interviewed who had attended the party said they had only been practicing martial arts moves and that nothing of a sexual nature had taken place. When Aera asked the SDF's public relations office for permission to talk to the witnesses at the party, it said the men had already been investigated, and denied the magazine’s request. Aera then called the personnel department and was stonewalled. The officer in charge of such matters was not available, it was told, and the only person who talked to the reporter said they couldn't discuss it “at this time.”

Clearly, Japan's SDF is not prepared to talk about sexual harassment. The main reason is that women have only recently been allowed to serve alongside men in a martial capacity, and apparently the possibility of sexual harassment was not anticipated. Last September, writer Kimie Itakura published a story on about the history of women in the SDF. By the time they were taking positions where they could possibly serve in missions alongside men, in other countries women were already in combat situations. About 40,000 women, for instance, were filling field positions in the U.S. military during the 1991 Gulf War. A researcher named Fumiko Sato, who published a book about women in the military in 2004, told Itakura that there had always been resistance from Japanese feminists regarding women in the SDF, since Japanese feminists by definition oppose any association with the military. Consequently, there has been very little scholarly interest in female participation in the SDF. Sato herself was accused by feminists of glorifying Japan's military ambitions, despite explaining that her intention had been to study the “mechanism of military paternalism” and the problems faced by women recruits.

Eventually, Sato came to understand that women soldiers throughout the world faced sexual harassment, but the problem for women recruits in Japan was a special case due to the ambiguous nature of the SDF, which is not technically a military body. She found that women were recruited by the SDF to “dilute” the military character of the organization and make it more palatable to the public at large, which has generally approved of Japan's post-war denunciation of war. In fact, women have been part of the SDF almost since its inception in the 1950s, but were initially recruited because the SDF needed personnel at a time when not enough men were joining due to Japan's rapidly growing economy. There were plenty of corporate warriors; just enough military ones. In the 1970s, women were recruited more aggressively in line with global trends. After Japan ratified the UN convention on job equality in 1985, the SDF intensified its recruitment drive for women, and in 1992 the National Defense Academy started accepting female students, which meant they could now be officers. 

Most of these women filled administrative posts and many were used for PR purposes. Some became "mascot girls" or were assigned to participate in local beauty pagents in order to increase the appeal of the SDF. It wasn't until 2002 that female recruits were sent to the field, when the SDF participated in the UN peacekeeping mission in East Timor. During the Iraq conflict they worked in communications, resupply and medical services. In 2015, the Shinzo Abe administration tried to boost female participation by allowing women to fly aircraft in the Air Self-Defense Force. But it wasn't until 2017 that women were allowed in the infantry, and not until 2018 that they could serve on submarines.

Sato sees some cynicism behind these moves. Abe as prime minister was constantly frustrated by the “comfort women” issue, which still infuriated historical revisionists in Japan, and thought that getting more women to join the SDF would deflect the controversy. He also thought it might mitigate some of the bad publicity that Japan had received for its gender gap in politics and the corporate world. But women were still not joining in large numbers. By March this year, they accounted for just 8% of all recruits. The proportion in NATO countries is 12%. The main motivation for women to join has been salary and position. Basically a civil service organization, the SDF is one of the few employers in Japan that pay women and men equally for the same job. After that, there is a substantial number of female recruits who join for the non-military service aspects, such as disaster relief.

Sato sees sexual harassment as a problem that won't be easy to solve, since many female recruits believe that the nature of the work means you have to persevere. “Soldiers are expected to be strong,” she says. As a result, workplace culture in the SDF is not likely to change until that change comes from the top. 

Which is why Gonoi's case is exceptional. She was not only aggressive in pursuing her tormentors, but put her own reputation on the line in order to force the SDF leadership to address sexual harassment. For the most part, if women cannot tolerate the culture as it is, the SDF would prefer they quit rather than bring up the problem, according to another female SDF member interviewed by Aera who quit due to harassment. Nevertheless, after Gonoi submitted a petition containing 100,000 signatures to the defense ministry demanding action, the ministry investigated the matter and in September admitted that she had been sexually assaulted.

On October 17, Gonoi gave a press conference where she revealed that four of her abusers had apologized individually in person to her that morning behind closed doors. Three of them, she said, had gotten down on their hands and knees, while another had wept. Though she accepted the apologies, she said that their apparent contrition did not diminish the impact their behaviour had had on her.

“I want them to take responsibility for what they have done, and atone for their wrongdoing,” she said, according to a report in the Mainichi Shimbun. Such incidents shouldn't happen in the first place, but that would require the SDF to educate all recruits on the nature of sexual harassment and power harassment. In fact, in an interview with that appeared October 18, Komaki Matsuda, a graduate of the National Defense Academy who quit the SDF due to harassment, commented that Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, the GSDF chief who made the formal apology to Gonoi on behalf of the organization in September, has been trying to introduce a sexual harassment education course for some time. Yoshida's apology, she insists, 2was not just a performance”. The question now is whether the whole military apparatus will take Yoshida's sincerity to heart. 


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.