COLUMN ONE : In Japan, Many Men Just Don't Get It : Nation only got word for sexual harassment after '89 court case. Weak laws, recession make fighting abuse difficult. Some say problem is getting worse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before Japan knew the term sexual harassment , Yuko Watanabe put up with her boss's back-room maulings as part of the job. The Tokyo hotel executive would call Watanabe, then a 20-year-old information guide, to the VIP lounge, throw her on the couch, cover her with kisses and laugh as she struggled.

Three years later, in 1989, the nation's first sexual harassment case hit the courts, sparking widespread media coverage that finally gave this age-old problem a name: sekuhara.

But despite the public campaigns the case prompted and the deluge of educational materials produced, experts say the problem appears to have intensified. Incidents range from men groping women on crowded commuter trains, to political bosses making journalists the target of sexual jokes, to company recruiters asking college students their bra size during interviews.

Masaomi Kaneko, a Tokyo city official, says little progress appears to have been made since he opened a hot line for female workers in 1989--and was astounded at what he found.

"There was sexual harassment everywhere. There were also lots of office rapes," he says. "I learned from these interviews that the people doing these things were not unusual men. They were normal men who loved their wives and children."

The staggering scope of the problem has only recently come to light. New studies show as many as three-fourths of women in Japan report having been sexually harassed, compared to about half in the United States.

Experts say Japan's economic slump has made things worse by silencing women who fear for their jobs and emboldening men who exploit this vulnerability.

And law enforcement, courts and corporations prefer to cloak the problem in euphemisms, calling office rape "love in the workplace" and sexual harassment a "communication gap," attorneys say. They add that legal standards to win a case under sexual harassment laws are difficult to meet--and that society strongly discourages lawsuits anyway.

Most corporations dismiss the problem as insignificant. The Ministry of Labor has produced pamphlets to raise awareness about sexual harassment since 1992 but does not distribute them to companies.

Nude calendars have come off most office walls, and women say the publicity given to the issue has helped them realize harassment is not their fault.

But, experts say, this has not led to a transformation in public attitudes or behavior in a society that has traditionally expected women to serve men and brighten the workplace as "office flowers."

"For me there is no difference between an office and a nightclub," says Toshinori Okubo, a securities-firm executive in Tokyo. "All Japanese companies prefer beauty rather than the capability of women. In interviews they ask, 'How large are your breasts?'

"This is unbelievable in the United States, but almost all 55- to 60-year-olds think this way," he says.

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Popular culture trivializes the problem with such articles as "I Love Sexual Harassment," a 140-part tabloid series supposedly based on women titillated by erotic office experiences. A veteran subway mauler penned one of this year's runaway bestsellers: "Diary of a Molester."

Despite groundbreaking anti-discrimination legislation in the late 1980s, enforcement is weak, and public and private organizations have been reluctant to offend men.

A campaign in Osaka prefecture attempts to combat sexual abuse on trains. Announcements had cautioned riders, "Let's refrain from acts of nuisance."

But the campaign--kept low-key because many passengers are men and "it would hurt their feelings," a train official said--was ineffective. Osaka officials strengthened efforts and began hanging "Molestation is a crime" posters in trains in July.

A Shimane University study this year at four college campuses also showed the problem's pervasiveness. It found that 89% of the respondents had been sexually harassed and more than one-third suffered ensuing mental problems.

What's more, a survey by Osaka's Independent Feminine Lifecycle Research Institute showed that about a third of Japanese women were victims of sexual abuse as children.

Despite the startling data, experts say few changes have been made because of powerful social taboos on the subject.

Rigid traditional gender roles leave women feeling socially isolated, deeply ashamed over sexual incidents and worried about being branded hysterical if they react emotionally to unwanted shoulder massages or nude figures on computer screen-savers.

Watanabe says she did not report her boss's back-room fumblings to her father, a police officer, because she would rather die than discuss anything of a sexual nature with him.

The subordinate position of women in most Japanese offices also discourages them from speaking out. A just-released United Nations study shows that Japan ranks 27th in the world in women's vocational status overall, and 81st in the number of women in management.

All of the women interviewed for this story said they had no higher authority to turn to for help after being harassed by their bosses.

Weak laws and what attorneys call a built-in bias in the legal system contribute to the problem. Although Japan now has a sexual harassment law, activists say the burden of proof is nearly impossible to meet.

"In sexual harassment cases, there is great emphasis on intention," says Kaneko, the Tokyo city official who was so scandalized by the problem's scope that he spent a year studying the issue in the United States. In Japan, he says, a man must state that his motive was sexual harassment to be found guilty under the new law.

Most cases that succeed use instead an obscure loophole in the civil code that entitles a woman to have a comfortable working environment.

The first successful case in 1989, in which a woman won $13,000 for sexual slander by her boss and male colleagues, was filed under other civil codes.

It is not known how many cases are filed annually, but it is likely to be a fraction of the thousands filed in the United States. Japan's most prominent feminist attorney, Mizuho Fukushima, says she handles about five cases a year, a figure unchanged over the past six years.

Unlike in the United States, where sexual harassment cases commonly win awards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even when Japanese victims win, they rarely win big. Awards, usually less than $15,000, are typically slashed to half of what plaintiffs request or even less.

Alison Wetherfield, a legal scholar who spent a year comparing Japanese and American sexual harassment laws at Tokyo University, argues that the legal fact-finding process itself is sexist.

In one recent case, a judge found that a woman wearing pantyhose under trousers could not have been raped because undressing her would have been too difficult.

A woman's attitude in court must also be deferential. In a case last year, a woman was awarded only half the money requested because the judge found that her "attitude was one of rebellion."

The lenient legal climate encourages companies to treat the problem with laxity--if at all.

Kyoei Mutual Fire & Marine Insurance Co. produces a video on sexual harassment required for all employees going overseas but has no video for workers at home.

"Sexual harassment cases are not yet a financial liability in Japan," says Taketoshi Kawano of Kyoei's risk management and engineering department. "Sexual harassment victims here don't have many rights, so cases aren't likely to occur."

Without legal incentives, few companies actively seek to change company behavior. In a country where proverbs advise people to "put a lid on smelly things," companies resist surveys and resolve complaints quickly and quietly--usually by firing the woman in question, or through bullying and spreading rumors to smear her reputation so that she quits, experts say.

Makiko Oba, a reporter at the Asahi Shimbun, a newspaper that prides itself on being a bastion of liberalism, conducted a sexual harassment survey through the company trade union but was prevented from disseminating the results.

Some media bosses have even encouraged women to put up with sexual harassment to get a news scoop. Several female reporters recalled being sent by their bosses to dance with politicians or to visit them late at night to pry information out of them.

Nobuko Usami, a former political reporter in Tokyo, says one spokesman for a political party constantly harassed her and used derogatory comments about her, about his former sexual conquests and about female politicians as humorous conversation during press briefings and private meetings.

Given Japan's cozy fraternity of male politicians and journalists, she tolerated the behavior for the sake of her job.

Despite what reporters say is rampant harassment in the political world, they write nothing about it for fear of offending their sources and losing access to information.

"In the United States, sexual harassment is considered a human rights violation," says Fukushima, the feminist lawyer. "Here, it is considered an issue of manners--a communication gap. It is considered equally the women's fault. This is all done so as not to shock the men."

Some argue that Japanese companies' "soft" approach is more effective in a society that places supreme value on harmony. But it actually undermines the cause by depriving the problem of the gravity it deserves and distracting public attention from weak and insufficient laws, Wetherfield says.

And experts say the current slump has aggravated the sekuhara situation, both because men prefer to hire men in hard times and because they know women will put up with more to secure scarce jobs.

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Shinsuke Kohiyama, spokesman for the Keidanran, Japan's most powerful economic organization, says businesses needed to hire women in the high-growth "bubble era" of the late 1980s.

"I don't mean to be rude, but we took whomever we could get," he says.

Amid the current economic crunch, he says, women should stick to other fields, such as the arts.

"Japan has a comparatively large work force. If you can eliminate one large group, there is less competition," he says. "In Japan's case, that is probably women."

Women make up almost 40% of Japan's total work force, but the vast majority of the nearly 27 million female workers are part time.

Such attitudes have forced women to put up with more to find a diminishing number of jobs. The latest figures predict that only one in three of this year's female four-year college graduates will find a job.

"Sexual harassment at company interviews has really increased," says Mami Nakano, who helped start a hot line for working women last year. "Women complain of various walls, ranging from having difficulty in getting company information . . . to personal questions about their anatomy or whether they have a lover."

Fukushima says the harsh business climate has effectively silenced the victims.

"There would have been more cases, but for economic reasons the law is now ignored," says Fukushima, whose own office now counsels victims of sexual harassment to try to endure it.

The legal difficulties and social embarrassment about raising the issue have inculcated an attitude of resignation among many women.

Lots of women have been pawed so consistently since junior high school that wandering hands in the office hardly seem something to fuss about.

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Etsuko Aoki, 29, says she was introduced to sexual harassment as a 13-year-old riding the crammed rush-hour train to school. Suddenly, she felt a hand under her skirt. Wedged between the bodies of businessmen, she froze, and prayed it would end.

But until she was 17, she said, she was molested every day on the way to and from school. Sometimes she was groped simultaneously by different men, with hands roving over her hips, thighs and breasts.

Gradually, she learned to try to avoid such situations. "I try not to ride rush-hour trains. I try to stand near women. I don't stand near doors. I have to take these measures," she says matter-of-factly.

Over the years she has learned to use her bag as a shield, as well as a weapon, against roaming hands.

The resignation among Japanese women is so profound that many actually feel sympathy for the men who maul them. Aoki and her friend, Watanabe, though completely repelled, say they believe that the men touch them because they are shy and lonely.

Train groping and other forms of sexual harassment appear prominent in men's fantasies, judging by popular literature.

"Diary of a Molester," written by a man who claims to have petted women's buttocks for 20 years on trains, is a monument to a lifetime of perversion and offers important how-to tips to molester wanna-bes.

In Japan's sports tabloids, as well, sexual harassment is a favorite theme. Koichiro Uno, a renowned pornography writer and onetime winner of Japan's prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, helped eroticize harassment in his "I Love Sexual Harassment" series in 1992.

Few people are optimistic about change amid Japan's persistent recession, painful corporate restructuring and an economic system built on women's cheap labor and inferior position in the workplace.

But despite the grim outlook, Japanese women emphasize that just having a name for the phenomenon marks a huge psychological breakthrough.

"That one word, sekuhara , did so much," says Yumiko Matsumoto, a librarian. "It may not be enough to cover all of our problems, but it gave us a counterpunch."

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