Court case and women's protests fell Japanese politician

Osaka's governor resigns Monday in wake of largest court award for sex

At first it seemed as though Knock Yokoyama, the governor of Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, had learned something from the travails of President Clinton.

Faced with allegations of sexual impropriety, Governor. Yokoyama denied the matter vigorously. Doing the American president one better, he managed to elude testifying under oath.

But last week a civil court ordered him to pay a record-breaking amount in damages and on Monday prosecutors searched his offices. That night Yokoyama - a popular comedian-turned-politician whose given name is Isamu Yamada - resigned in disgrace.

Ever since, some Japanese have felt like cheering. "I would like to clap my hands," says Reiko Shoji, director of the Working Women's Network, an activist group in Osaka, for the "bravery" of the young campaign worker who accused Yokoyama of groping her.

The case will embolden victims of sexual harassment to step forward, help empower women generally, and force men to think anew, observers say. The resignation is "something historical," says Yoko Tajima, a literature and women's studies professor in Tokyo, because "a woman has been recognized as a human being."

Old traditions

In some ways, women are second-class citizens in Japan. For centuries, men-come-first Confucian values have influenced the way people think. For the last half-century, the economic system has been organized around the idea that men should be breadwinners and corporate warriors and women should work part time, if at all, and concentrate on taking care of family.

Women here aren't burning bras or making manifestos, but a good number are fed up. One is the university student who joined Yokoyama's reelection campaign this spring as a part-time worker, hoping to learn about politics.

On April 8, she found herself in the back of a campaign van, sitting next to Yokoyama. Only because he was cold and she was unwell, Yokoyama says, he draped a blanket over the two of them.

The student - whose name has not been publicized in accordance with legal requirements - says the governor molested her. "She felt what the governor did was not appropriate," says the student's lawyer, Osaka attorney Juri Yukita. "So she decided to make this case public."

On April 9 she filed a criminal complaint against Yokoyama, but the governor denied her charges and two days later won a landslide reelection victory. He filed a counterclaim denying the allegations on April 15, but refused to appear in court to contest the civil matter, which the judge ruled an admission of wrongdoing.

Ten days ago, the court ordered Yokoyama to pay the student approximately $107,000 in compensation, the largest such award in a sexual-harassment case in Japanese history. The size of the judgment seemed to turn the tide against the governor. Women's groups took to the streets to call for Yokoyama's resignation and local politicians began to discuss a censure.

Growing protests

The Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office, in the meantime, was receiving hundreds of postcards and letters urging authorities to pursue the criminal case. Lawyer Yukita and activist Shoji say the public pressure may account for remarkably quick official action.

This case follows legal changes that are gradually giving Japanese women more equal standing with men. This June, parliament passed a bill urging the central and local governments to promote equality between men and women in the home and in society at large.

In April, an easier-to-enforce equal employment opportunity law went into effect, and the government has also revised a statute on labor standards to remove some restrictions on women.

Professor Tajima, who is well known as a feminist activist, says the student deserves credit for her initiative, as do the women who supported her cause. "I think she was able to speak up because ... she has learned to be independent. She has taken advantage of the systems [for redress] now available."

"Knock initially tried to remain the authority while looking down on the woman," Tajima adds, using Yokoyama's popular nickname.

"From now on, even politicians will at least have to pretend ... to treat women equally in public - otherwise you could ruin the rest of your life."

Activists say they are excited by the impact the young student could have on the society. "This case shows that Japanese women won't be quiet anymore .... It is a good advertisement for us to promote sexual-harassment cases," says Shoji.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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