Editorial: Japan’s Self-Defense Forces must reform internally to stamp out harassment

Yoshihide Yoshida, Chief of Staff, Joint Staff of the Self-Defense Forces, left, leaves a news conference regarding punishment of members in the wake of claims by a former member that she was sexually harassed by colleagues, at the Ministry of Defense on Dec. 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

Japan’s Ministry of Defense has released the results of an investigation into harassment within the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the ministry. The probe was directed by the minister of defense, after a former female member of the Ground Self-Defense Force accused several male colleagues of sexually assaulting her.

Things that should not have been happening, such as threats and retaliation against people complaining about harassment were occurring. The SDF must be reborn as an organization where human rights violations are never allowed.

The fact that over 60% of the 1,325 claims of power and sexual harassment were not filed through internal consultation desks is serious. Many people had judged that based on the organization’s past responses, they “can’t expect any improvements” even if they discuss problems. There were cases where the counselors were themselves the perpetrators, or where there were no female counselors in the units to which the members belonged.

It also emerged that after coming forward with claims of damage, many members were basically forced to silently bear the situation — a fact we cannot overlook. There was a case in which a member was told to keep quiet by an officer in charge, who said, “If you make a big deal of it you won’t be able to stay here either.” Another member was urged to withdraw a claim, being told, “It’ll hurt the head of the unit and squad leader.”

In addition, one member said that their report of damage “was conveyed to the perpetrator as is, and the situation worsened.” Another said the harmful acts escalated after they came forward about them. We have to say that awareness about protecting victims was crucially lacking.

The SDF tends to place importance on maintaining morale and a top-down approach. But that certainly does not mean that they should cover up incidents and be tough on victims while being lenient toward perpetrators.

The government is increasing defense spending and introducing advanced equipment on the grounds that the security environment is becoming increasingly severe. However, if the physical and mental health of the SDF members who operate it is not protected, then solidarity within the forces will be shaken, and they will become unable to protect the country.

Due to the declining birth rate and other factors, the SDF has faced a lack of personnel. If harassment is rife, then young people will not choose the forces as a place to work, and even those who enlisted with high aspirations could lose their desire to continue serving.

The report calls for a review of the consultation system and thorough enforcement of the policy of zero tolerance for harassment. It is necessary to steadily implement these measures. Without a fundamental change in nature, it will not be possible to regain the public’s trust.

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