Photo/IllutrationAn assemblywoman greets a constituent on March 2 in Chiba Prefecture. (Hiromi Kumai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

One in four rookie assemblywomen has been sexually harassed or even stalked by their colleagues and constituents who often prey on the politicians’ inexperience or their drive to establish a support base.

The problem is so bad that some assemblywomen have changed the scheduling and content of their political activities to avoid the harassment.

The trend, which is depriving assemblywomen of interactions with normal supporters and the freedom to do their jobs, has led to the term “hyo hara” (vote harassment). Yet few assemblies around the country are taking measures to protect their female representatives from such abuse.

“What’s behind all this is that Japan is still very much a male-dominated society and has not gotten used to women who are trying to take leadership roles and are speaking their minds,” said Masae Ido, a former Lower House member and assemblywoman from Hyogo Prefecture.

The Asahi Shimbun conducted a survey on 544 women who were elected to assemblies for the first time in the 2015 unified local elections, and received 316 responses.

Asked if they have experienced sexual harassment as an assembly member, 25 percent said “yes.” Among them, 50 percent said the perpetrator was a fellow assembly member, while 40 percent cited a constituent.

A ward assembly member in Tokyo in her 40s said she was at a dinner party with supporters about a half and a year ago when she felt someone’s hand stroking her bottom.

The groper was a constituent in his 70s.

“Please stop,” she said, but the fondling continued.

The man started showing up at her functions about a year after she won a seat in the assembly election.

“I used to support the other party, but now I want to support you,” he said early on.

He later promised he could deliver her dozens of votes and said, “Let’s go out for drinks, just the two of us.”

Although totally against the idea, she started to wonder about losing those precious votes. She said she also felt that she could not bluntly reject one of her supporters.

She went with the man to a restaurant but brought along two other supporters so she would not be alone with him. It didn’t matter. In a room with tatami mats, the man sat next to her and groped her.

“It is my job to meet the ward’s residents to talk about my policies,” the assemblywoman said. “What should I do when they pressure me to go out for drinks?”

The incident crushed her conviction as a politician.

For a city assemblywoman in her 40s in Shizuoka Prefecture, the excitement of winning her first election waned after about half a year.

As a local politician, she made a commitment to give soap-box speeches on the street once a week and listen to the residents’ voices and concerns afterward.

She announced the timing and location of her speeches on social media in hopes that more people would get to know her.

But then she noticed the same faces--three to four men from their 30s to 50s--appearing at every speech with greetings of “hello.”

Some of them even followed her into a restaurant where she was having lunch.

“Let’s eat together,” one of them said in a social media message.

The situation got creepier.

Messages started flooding in every time she posted an update on her political activities. In one day, one man sent her several messages that simply said, “LOVE.”

He also wrote: “I’m nearby. Can we meet?”

The assemblywoman became so exhausted responding to these messages that she stopped posting updates.

Kyoko Kataoka, 40, a city assemblywoman in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, said that soon after she was elected, an elderly man contacted her through social media and asked for a consultation. He insisted on meeting her at a restaurant in neighboring Matsudo city.

After Kataoka listened to the man’s concerns, he said, “I’ll drive you home.” His persistence wore her down and she got into his car.

The man drove around for three hours.

“I opened the door at a red light and ran off,” Kataoka said.

Women aspiring to become politicians are also not spared by harassers and stalkers.

Kumi Kato, 51, a town assembly member of Nakai, Kanagawa Prefecture, is working with assembly members in neighboring local governments to support women who are thinking about running in elections.

Kato said one female would-be candidate explained that a man followed her around when she was handing out fliers at an event and even showed up at her home.

When she gave him the cold shoulder, he started sending threatening messages to her as well as to Kato, who is seeking a second term.

Kato has advised female hopefuls to record any harassment or threat, and then talk to the police.

“Don’t get used to any type of harassment,” Kato advises the women. “We have to speak out against it.”

According to the results of the Asahi survey, many female politicians endure overt sexual harassment on a daily basis.

In most cases, the women said they are pressured not to make accusations or complaints in the male-dominant field. Instead, some say they generally swallow their anger, toughen up and move on.

“It’s probably OK to say something about it. But once you are in the situation, it is really difficult,” said a city assembly member in her 30s in Shizuoka Prefecture, who has first-hand experience in being humiliated by a colleague.

At a party with other assembly members and city residents, the assemblyman suddenly pulled the waistline of her pantyhose out of her pants and shoved ice cubes inside.

The only words that came out of her mouth were, “Please stop.”

She tried to act like she was shrugging off a prank, but she was seething inside.

She said her fellow assemblywomen have given up fighting such behavior by their male colleagues, thinking, “We have to be strong to do this job.”

A city assemblywoman in her 40s in the Tokai region did speak up--but after a year and a half of being menaced by an assemblyman.

She had just been elected for the first time, and the assemblyman approached her as a kind of mentor.

He then became obsessive, calling and sending LINE messages to her several times a day.

On an inspection tour, he demanded entry to her hotel room. She slammed the door in his face.

The assemblyman found her daughter’s mobile phone number and called the high school student, asking, “Do you know where your mother is?”

After that disturbing incident, the assemblywoman renovated the entrance of her home, installed a sturdier door, and ensured the doors were locked up tight at all times.

She complained to the secretary-general of the assembly, who gave a warning to the assemblyman.

He stopped stalking her, but she still cannot avoid seeing him at work.

“I feel upset every time I see his face,” she said.

In another survey, The Asahi Shimbun sent questionnaires to 1,788 assemblies in all prefectures, cities, wards, towns and villages. All assemblies responded.

The results showed that only 101 assemblies, or 5.6 percent, said they have taken measures to prevent sexual harassment.

Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer specializing in issues of sexual violence against women, pointed out that discrimination against women is at the root of the vote harassment phenomenon.

“There is a common belief that it is acceptable to disrespect women and ridicule them sexually,” she said. “Therefore, in many cases, the aggressor as well as society don’t realize it is a bad thing.”

Tsunoda said female politicians are particularly vulnerable, and they need to change their mind-sets.

“Once you allow a predator to look down on you and think that ‘she cannot fight back,’ then he will become too confident and his actions will escalate,” she said. “You have to change the thinking that ‘I cannot be disliked by voters.’ Instead, say ‘no’ point-blank from the beginning.”

Ido, the former Lower House member, shared an observation: “There are more and more condescending men nowadays who want to give ‘instructions’ to female assembly members, such as, ‘Go say hi to this person’ and ‘Do this, do that.’”

Ido said such men may feel threatened by the collapse of the seniority system, and they miss the old days when they used to give “instructions” at their workplaces and in organizations.

“For them, I wonder if female assembly members and candidates have become the perfect target,” Ido said.

Campaigns for the unified local elections have started to kick off around the country.

In a pre-election survey, The Asahi Shimbun found that 19 percent of local assemblies in the country consist entirely of men while 26 percent have only one female member.

No women are represented in 339 of the 1,788 municipal and prefectural assemblies. The number was 412 in the survey conducted in 2011, and 379 in 2015.

Japan has enacted a law calling on political parties to field equal numbers of men and women in national and local elections. But vote harassment could scare off potential female candidates.

“There are fewer and fewer people who want to run for local assembly seats,” Kaoru Matsuda, a political campaign consultant, said. “Women with ability and ambition face obstacles to become candidates. Now with vote harassment, voters themselves are further accelerating the current situation from bad into worse.”

(This article was written by Satoko Tanaka, Azusa Mishima and Go Yamashita.)