Comments: Japan’s Me Too Movement and the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue: Part 1 - Historical Revisionism, Backlash and the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue

Posts Kyung-hee ChoAssistant Professor, Institute for East Asian Studies, Sungkonghoe University

  • Created at2019.10.24
  • Updated at2023.09.21
This is a revised summary of 「Japan’s #MeToo Movement and Post-Feminism: Power to Incapacitate, Heart to Connect」 printed in Feminism and Korean Literature, Issue No. 47 (2019).



There is no ‘Me Too’ in Japan?

Last year, when the Me Too movement was in full swing, I was asked several times by my students of Japan Studies, “why is there no Me Too movement in Japan? Why isn’t it covered in the Japanese media often?” It was not easy to answer this question. As shown below, it isn’t true that Me Too movement didn’t happen in Japan. However, there is no doubt that the degree of engagement in Japan was resolutely different from that in Korea in terms of media coverage and social consensus. Why were they not visible? What forces were working in the background?

Journalist Ito Shiori (伊藤詩織) filed a police report against Yamaguchi Noriyuki, the manager of the Washington branch of TBS Television, in 2015 for quasi-rape, and subsequently filed an objection to the prosecutor’s office for the non-indictment in 2016. In May of 2017, she held a press conference to reveal the details of the rape carried out by Yamaguchi. Afterwards, she published a book to expose not only the sexual assault, but also the secondary victimization caused by the Japanese police and the problems in Japan’s judicial system, etc.

The report presented by Ito is well-known throughout the world as a leading case of Japan’s Me Too movement, but on the other hand, she became a target of criticism and received threats in Japanese society as she was viewed to be outside of the typical image of the ‘victimhood’, in that she is stylish and can speak fluent English. Consequently, she made the decision to leave Japan. She then started a new life in England and gained recognition overseas by appearing in the BBC’s special program, etc. Now she has taken up the role of an expert who studies the laws and the supporting systems of developed countries on how they respond to sexual violence. Her fight is still on-going, as Yamaguchi has filed a counter-claim against her claims for damages against Yamaguchi.

Following Ito, KaoRi, a model, accused Araki Nobuyoshi(荒木経惟), a photographer, of sexually exploiting female models in his work, ‘Private Photographs(私写真)'. A female reporter disclosed vulgar sexual harassment committed by Fukuda Junichi (福田淳一), a deputy-director at the Finance Ministry, which led to his resignation. More than eight pupils of a human rights journalist, Hirokawa Ryuichi, fully exposed of his habitual sexual and psychological assault through an abuse of his power. In August of 2018, it was revealed that Tokyo Medical University has been altering the admissions rate of female students on the ground that “women’s capacity as doctors are reduced because they cannot work long-hours due to marriage and childbirth, etc.” Women who were frustrated and infuriated by such outdated discrimination against them began to spill out on to the streets. The chilly reactions presented by the mass media and the medical community only further informed the world that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not true that the Me Too didn’t exist in Japan nor was the severity of such discrimination and violence was ever slight. Nevertheless, what was the reason why the Me Too didn’t enjoy widespread support and consensus? Before we attribute it to the failure or impossibility of the Me Too movement in Japan, we need to take a closer look at the context of feminism in the neoliberalism era after the cold war and the response thereof. It’ll be difficult to understand the relatively cold responses to the Me Too movement in Japan unless we first understand the institutionalization of the human rights movement, including post-cold war feminism, and the broad backlash against their struggle for recognition. I also believe the denialism of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue continues to play a sizeable role here.


 강간 피해를 알리고 일본 경찰의 2차 가해와 사법제도의 문제점을 고발한 이토 시오리의 책 『Black Box』의 표지



Union of Gender Backlash and Historical Revisionism

The development of the Japanese feminist movement is characterized by the commencement of the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s, the creation of the women’s studies in the 1980s and the establishment of gender studies in the 1990s. Institutionally, the Nationality Act was amended (1984) and the Act on Securing, Etc. of Equal Opportunities and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment (hereinafter Equal Employment Opportunity Act) was enacted (1985) upon the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985; and in the 1990s, the Basic Act for a Gender Equal Society was enacted in 1999, a fruit resulted from the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted in the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).

Of course, summaries, such as these, are in fact too one-dimensional. The feminists have identified the year 1985 to be the “first year of female poverty” or the “first year of female segregation,” and as such, the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, along with the Worker Dispatch Act that promoted relaxation of the employment regulations and the introduction of a new pension system that encouraged lower wages for women, all accelerated the pace of women becoming non-regular employees. This clearly indicates that women were regrouped as a convenient workforce during the reformation process of neoliberalism. The new conservative group that led the neoliberalist reform no longer told the women to “return to home”. Instead, they demanded that women become a ‘flexible’ workforce that makes an entry into the society, and is responsible for the household duties at the same time.

Under the agenda of ‘gender equality,’ women began to enter the government and local administrations. This was followed by the establishment of local government gender equality centers and gender-related ordinances, and soon enough, gender theory lectures and civil lectures and gender-related publications began to appear actively in academic and educational areas. At the time, the term ‘gender-free’ appeared often in publications and educational brochures published by women’s organizations nationwide.

However, during the same period, a wave of backlash spread nationwide that misled and attacked the context of ‘gender-free’ as “radical sex education that encourages free sex.” Hayashi Michiyoshi (林道義), a psychologist and the leading advocate of this backlash, has begun to advocate the reinstatement of paternity, maternity and the housewife since late 1990s, and argued that the feminism after 1999 when the Basic Act was enacted is “an evil that is taking up the center of the government and is destroying the traditional form of family,” that there should be a counterattack against feminism.

At the time, the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue provided the momentum for the backlash against feminism, along with the ‘gender free’ discussion. The late 1990s is the advent of the historical revisionism in earnest, such as the “Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform” (Textbook Reform Society) and Kobayashi Yoshinori (小林よしのり)’s manga* ‘On War,’ and the main commentators were all involved in gender backlash, too. For example, Nishio Kanji (西尾幹二), the chairman of the Textbook Reform Society who called the history “national aspirations,” “not a science,” and its core members Takahashi Shiro (高橋史郎) and Yagi Hidetsuku (八木秀次), etc. rejected the inclusion of the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue in the textbooks and were the main leaders of the gender backlash. Under the ‘reinstatement of motherhood,’ they rejected the women’s autonomous space, and repeatedly reproduced discussions that insulted the ‘comfort women’ victims and sex workers simultaneously by labelling the ‘comfort women’ as prostitutes. After the late 1990s, the gender backlash and historical revisionism increased their influence, and the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue was at the core of their power.
* manga: Japanese comic


Two Conservative Groups Powered by the Denial of the ‘Comfort Women’

Discussions regarding the historical revisionism of the 1990s led to the development of two conservative groups in the 2000s at a different level.

First is the comprehensive right-wing group created through forging an alliance with conservative politicians. They were founded on the ground of Japan’s largest right-wing political and religious groups, such as the ‘Japan Conference (日本会議)’ and ‘Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership (神道政治連盟),’ etc., and played an active role through conservative media, such as the Sankei Shimbun (産経新聞), Seiron (正論), Shokun (諸君!) and SAPIO, etc. To them, the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue and ‘gender free education’ are connected because they destroy patriotism and traditional order. As manifested in the launching of the ‘Project Team of Investigating the Status of Radical Sex Education and Gender Free Education’ in May 2005 with Shinzo Abe as its leader, who was the chief cabinet secretary at the time, gender backlash in Japan evolved into a part of the greater-conservative alliance that was driven by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s extreme right-wing politicians, beyond an anti-feminist movement within the civic society.

Second is the far-reaching internet right-wing (Netto-uyoku) that appeared along with the development of the Internet. The net right-wing grew rapidly from the Korea-Japan World Cup of 2002. Initially it centered around the discussions on ‘anti-Korean sentiment’ and ‘Zainichi Tokken,’ etc. but soon developed into the hate speeches of [1] (the group of citizens who do not tolerate any privileges for ethnic Korean residents in Japan) which regard itself as ‘active conservative.’ What they did is to attack the existing liberal groups, Korean residents in Japan, and feminists, etc. as being ‘anti-Japan,’ and as a result, they confined the discussions on Japanese society’s resistance in a poor political imaginations. The ‘Feminazi watchdog bulletin board’ created by ‘2Channel’ in 2002 changed its name to the ‘Bulletin board monitoring feminism and anti-Japan activities’ in 2016 and it still continues to the present day. It has now been expanded to comprehensive ‘hate business.’ Cartoonist Hasumi Toshiko (はすみとしこ), who has created an illustration mocking Syrian refugees, subsequently attacked various groups of people whom she calls ‘disguised weak,’ from the Korean residents in Japan, feminists, Okinawans, etc. After the Me Too movement, the incident where she placed the text, [2]along with the images of Ito Shiori and the ‘comfort women’ victims highlights the core of this trend.

In this way, the anti-feminists and historical revisionists in the 1990s established a great alliance to create a wave of backlash in relatively shorter period of time in Japan than in Korea, and the Japanese military ‘comfort women’ issue was at the core of it. By this I mean that when the Textbook Reform Society criticized the ‘masochistic’ history textbooks that damage the pride of the Japanese and patriotism and when the Zaitokukai held anti-Korean demonstrations on the streets, at the center of it was a series of insults and criticism on the ‘comfort women’ victims. The current situation caused by the popularization of historical revisionism manifests an anti-intellectualism based on the beliefs of non-experts, such as cartoonists, YouTubers, celebrities, etc. rather than historical expertise. This indicates that Japan is in the process of an overall backlash on minorities and victims in Japanese society.



“Women are Leading the ‘Comfort Women’ Issue Caused by Men?”

In a new and recent trend, it is notable that female politicians and activists are now taking the lead in the denialism of ‘comfort women’ and anti-feminism activities. Already in September of 2001, ‘Japan Women’s Group,’ an affiliation of the “Japan Conference,’ was created to take an important role in the gender backlash. Nadeshiko Action (なでしこアクション), established in 2011 to “exterminate the ‘comfort women’ issue,” is a civic group working to stop domestic and overseas “anti-Japan” activities, such as protesting against local councils that issued resolutions that differ from the government’s opinion on ‘comfort women’ issue, protesting against the installation of the ‘comfort women’ Statue of Peace overseas, etc. The president of the group, Yamamoto Yumiko (山本優美子), originally was part of the management of Zaitokukai and organized Nadeshiko Action to resolve the ‘comfort women’ issue.

She asserted that ‘comfort women’ is a historical distortion at the UN, along with Sugita Mio (杉田水脈), a right-wing politician of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and co-authored a book 『The Comfort Woman Issue that Women can Resolve because We are Women』 (Josei dakara Kaiketsu dekiru Ianfu Mondai, Tokyo: Jiyūsha, 2017) along with the catchphrase “Women take on the ‘comfort women’ issue caused by men.” Sugita, who first entered politics as an “Abe’s kid”, gained fame among the internet right-wingers through provocative hate speeches against all minority human rights issues, such as LGBT, refugees, Korean residents in Japan, etc., along with feminism. Especially, she has positioned herself at the forefront of the international ‘history war’ surrounding the ‘comfort women’ issues, lobbying at the UN and leading the movement against establishing the Statue of Peace around the world.

The incident where Sugita, who has labelled gender equality as ‘anti-moral,’ attacked the Me Too movement, calling it a ‘witch-hunt of modern times’ clearly shows a radical case of anti-feminism. Their true faces are clearly revealed in the movie <Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of Comfort Women Issue>

However, Yamaguchi, whom Ito filed a suit against, was known to have as strong a relationship with the current government as to publish a critical biography of Abe. In her book 『Black Box』, Ito describes her nightmarish experiences in detail, such as Yamaguchi’s attitude after the sexual assault, the possibility of drug use, secondary victimization caused by the police and prosecution during the process of filing a suit against Yamaguchi, and the sudden cancellation of the scheduled arrest of Ito, etc. Ito was threatened that “your life as a journalist would end if you go ahead and press charges” during the investigation, and in the end, the arrest of Yamaguchi was suddenly cancelled.

It is no coincidence that immediately prior to the case, Yamaguchi wrote an article stating that “there were Vietnamese comfort women for the Korean troops.” Suspected on fabrication and interception around the veracity of this article even within the conservative media, he received disciplinary action within TBS. He later independently published the article, which was withdrawn by TBS, in the conservative magazine Shukan Bunshun, and ultimately was dismissed from the position of head of the Washington branch. Some pointed out that communication occurred with people close to the Abe administration during the publication of the article. With these facts as the premise, there is a large wall that blocks the individuals involved in Japan’s Me Too movement. It is not irrelevant to the political and social backlash continuing from the ‘90s.

Part 2 will discuss the movements against these acts.



  1. ^ Zaitokukai’s full name is Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai which means Association of Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi (Korean in Japan), (2020. 10. 26)
  2. ^ Twitter account of Hasumi Toshiko,

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Writer Kyung-hee Cho

사회학/일본학 전공. 연구분야는 식민지 사회사, 재일조선인, 이동과 소수자 등이다. 주요공저에 『주권의 야만: 밀항, 수용소, 재일조선인』(2017),  『<나>를 증명하기: 아시아에서 국적, 여권, 등록』(2017), 『전후의 탄생 : 일본, 그리고 조선이라는 경계』(2013), 『귀환 혹은 순환: 아주 특별하고 불평등한 동포들』(2013) 등이 있다.