Until a few years ago, Japan didn’t even have a term for sexual harassment.
But Japanese companies with businesses in the United States are starting to realize that what passes for normal at home could bring hefty legal claims abroad.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 115 sexual discrimination complaints against Japanese companies last year, according to Japan’s Kyoei Mutual Fire and Marine insurance company.
One-third of the cases involved seku hara , which is what sexual harassment has come to be called.
In Japan, where women say male bosses routinely pat female employees’ bottoms and inquire about their underwear, it is difficult to portray sexual harassment as a law-breaking offense.
But local activists hope that the stir over Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the overseas experiences of Japanese companies will have a bearing on workplace behavior, if only indirectly.
“Women used to just give up because they thought nothing could be done, but they are speaking out more,” said lawyer Miyako Nakajima.
“Now, with more Japanese companies advancing overseas and with the Thomas case in the news, men may begin to understand they shouldn’t do such things.”
Sexual harassment received little public attention in Japan until 1989, when a 32-year-old editor at a small magazine filed a rare suit seeking 3 million Japanese yen ($23,000) in compensation for sexual harassment by her boss.
She charged that rumors spread by her editor-in-chief constituted sexual harassment and discrimination and eventually forced her to quit.
The lawsuit, on which the Fukuoka District Court is expected to rule next year, prompted a flood of media articles. Seku hara hotlines were set up, surveys conducted and symposiums held.
“Until then, sexual harassment really wasn’t an issue at all,” said Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer for the Fukuoka plaintiff. “One could say because of the case, awareness of the problem was born.”
Earlier this year some Tokyo lawyers drew up a draft law aimed at tightening sexual harassment legislation. But with little support from ruling or opposition parties, it has virtually no chance of being debated in parliament.
Kyoei Mutual hopes to play on Japan’s nascent awareness of the sexual harassment issue with a video it plans to sell to Japanese firms operating abroad.
In the video, “Mr. Yoshida,” a sleazy manager at a fictitious Japanese trading house in the United States, verbally harasses his American colleague, “Ms. Simon.”
He suggests that she wear sexier clothes, lures her out on a date by saying it’s a client meeting and then tells her: “Your future at the company may depend on how well we get along.”
When Simon rejects his advances, he fires her.
Commentators then explain why his behavior is undesirable--not ethically, but financially.
A U.S. court, they note, could decide to award a plaintiff in such a case back pay, attorneys’ fees and, in some states, compensatory and punitive damages.
The video, a Kyoei Mutual official said, exists only in English but is to be translated into Japanese soon.
Why the focus on educating Japanese firms abroad but not at home?
“Such (legal) cases are common in Japanese firms in America, so we made the film as a way to help with their risk management,” a Kyoei official said. “The risk overseas is greater.”