TOKYO — This story is about a powerful boss, a star-struck junior employee, sexual-harassment allegations, and a media frenzy that would put feeding sharks to shame. Sound familiar? Wait.
The boss is Seiko Matsuda, also known as Japan's Madonna. She's a pop singer with a big smile and a knack for managing the media.
The employee is Christopher Conte, a chiseled American dancer who toured with Ms. Matsuda for years and now claims she sexually harassed him.
Reports in the more sensational press have people tittering, but activists are taking the suit seriously: They're hoping the case will raise awareness about sexual harassment. Given the timing, they actually have a shot.
The Labor Ministry has just unveiled a campaign to highlight a significant change in Japan's approach to the issue: an amendment that makes firms liable in sexual- harassment cases as of April 1999. "It's the first law that actually addresses sexual harassment," says Junichiro Numazaki, a professor at Tohoku University in Sendai and an antisexual-harassment activist.
Currently, firms are simply urged to discourage harassment. But the government's amendment of a 1986 employment law last June changed all that. Mr. Numazaki has reservations about the new measure's clarity, but he's upbeat. "This is an improvement," he says.
The Matsuda suit marks the first time a woman has been sued for sexual harassment in Japan. (Activists joke that it's likely to be the last, since so few women wield power here.) Despite its unusual nature, many hope the case will show sexual harassment can be countered.
Sixty percent of women say sekuhara, as sexual harassment is known, happens in their office, recent government figures show. While women experience harassment though, few see it as an act they can fight legally.
Yukiko Takiguchi, a talkative homemaker who used to work as a flight attendant for a Japanese airline, says she dealt with pilots who perused "Playboy"-like magazines and a manager who made "disgusting and shocking" comments about her body.
It made her furious, but she did nothing. "I was worried about my job," she says.
Japanese corporate culture also makes it hard to act. It discourages any kind of personal criticism, and lower-ranked employees are never supposed to complain about a superior.
Today, with the Matsuda case and articles about the government's sekuhara campaign, Ms. Takiguchi is thinking differently. "I've become much more aware of the issue," she says. "[Now] I would talk to a woman manager in the office. Or I would say to [my manager], 'People call this sexual harassment, sir. You should watch what you say.' "
Awareness of sekuhara as a crime is low compared with the US. Indeed, visitors might see aspects of Japanese working life as conducive to harassment. Working women (most of whom are in low-status clerical positions) are often referred to as "office flowers." Most of the sports newspapers that men read feature large photos of nude models. And evening office outings can be difficult to manage, women say.
A lot of work in Japan gets done after 5 p.m., when people go to bars or restaurants to forge the personal ties essential to doing business here. Most of that relationship-building involves copious amounts of alcohol. (This practice is such a part of business life that there's slang for it: "nomu-nication," nomu is the verb "to drink.") A cultural understanding that almost anything done while drunk is permissible provides a way out for those who misbehave.
The work evenings are one of the areas activists worry about, as the law doesn't discuss these situations. "They're out of the office, [but] the environment is no different for a secretary," says Numazaki. "How can she refuse once her boss starts doing something weird?"
The central challenge, activists say, is education. "People still aren't sure of what the word [sekuhara] means," says Tokyo lawyer Asako Shirato, who runs a sexual-harassment hot line.
Into this void danced Mr. Conte, whose unusual $3 million lawsuit, filed in March, is heightening awareness of the underlying dynamic of sekuhara: the power a superior wields over an employee. A New York native who uses the stage name Alan Reed, Conte came to Japan in the early 1990s to perform at Tokyo Disneyland. He then toured with Matsuda from 1992 to 1997. They reportedly had an intimate relationship during those years, though Conte now argues she threatened to fire him if he didn't comply with her demands.
Neither he nor Matsuda would comment on the case, but in a just-published book, "Backstage of [sic] Seiko Matsuda," Conte outlines his grievance. The slim volume, written in Japanese, is filled with copies of her love letters and photos of the two hugging and smiling. Underneath, the captions generally begin "Can you believe this is a woman who would..." and go on to detail some aspect of the alleged harassment.
Not just a US problem
Despite or maybe because of the Matsuda case, there's still a strong sense that harassment is more of an American problem. Until now, the most well-known sekuhara conflict here was a 1996 suit filed against Mitsubishi Motors Corp. by female workers in Illinois. That suit recently headed into settlement negotiations.
One American insurance company offers Japanese businessmen posted in the US special insurance against sekuhara claims. For the past few years, Keidanren, a group representing Japan's largest companies, has offered biannual sexual harassment seminars for US-bound businessmen. But Keidanren offers no training on the issue as a domestic problem. "Until two or three years ago, we never heard of sexual harassment in Japan," says Keidanren spokeswoman Tomoko Hasegawa.
The government aims to remedy that. The Labor Ministry has just released a pamphlet that defines sexual harassment and gives examples of potentially offensive behavior, including the display of nude photos.
Despite the progress, there are cynics. Yoko Matsumura's law office occasionally sees women who would like to take action but shrink at facing the legal system. "There aren't enough women police officers and judges," she explains.
On top of that, there is a cultural bias against those who bring lawsuits in general as it disrupts Japan's highly prized social harmony. "People get bullied or pointed at by others [for bringing them]," says Numazaki.
That helps explain why the country has seen only some 100 sexual-harassment suits, mostly in recent years.
"Americans would probably be surprised at how low the number is," says Mizuho Fukushima, Japan's leading female lawyer. "But I think, 'Finally, it's got this far.' "
Most Japenese women know harassment
Japan's Ministry of Labor conducted its first surveys on sexual harassment last summer. It questioned 2,254 companies across the country. Employees from 35 percent of the firms responded. The ministry also sent a separate survey to government bureaus. Here's what it found:
* 60 percent of Japanese women say they have witnessed sexual harassment at the office.
* 20 percent of female government workers and 1 percent of male government workers report having been sexually harassed.
* 6.2 percent of female government employees say they have been sexually assaulted or almost assaulted by male colleagues or other bureaucrats.
* 56 percent of women who have been harassed ignore it, 35 percent complained to their harasser, and 18 percent spoke to colleagues.
* 31 percent of women said they would use a sexual harassment consulting service at the office if it existed.
* More than 90 percent of firms say they need to do something about sexual harassment, but only 5.5 percent have done so.
* When asked about the sexual harassment at their firm, 37 percent of companies admitted it could happen, 31 percent said it "never" takes place, and 32 percent said they didn't know.
Source: Ministry of Labor, 1997