Shiori Ito and the ‘Black Box’ of Sexual Assault in Japan

Shiori Ito’s memoir ‘Black Box’ smashes open the legal norms that box in sexual assault victim’s rights in Japan and drags the system’s misogyny into the light.

Black Box: The Memoir That Sparked Japan's #MeToo Movement
Shiori Ito
The Feminist Press
July 2021

When Shiori Ito reported her sexual assault to Tokyo police in 2015, she was told by the investigating officer: “This kind of thing happens all the time and there’s no easy way to investigate cases like these.”

If his words were meant to discourage her – and they were – they wound up having the opposite effect. Over the next four years Ito fought not only for justice from her own assailant, but to shed light on a system that remains dauntingly stacked against survivors of sexual assault.

In 2015, Ito was an aspiring journalist on an internship with the Japanese branch of Reuters. She was looking for more permanent work, preferably a reporting job abroad. One of her leads was Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a US-based bureau chief with Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) she had met while studying in New York. When she emailed him seeking job leads, he hinted at an exciting job prospect and asked to meet with her during an upcoming visit to Tokyo.

The night they met he raped her, likely using date-rape drugs.

The story of Ito’s struggle for justice – the multiple police investigations, civil and criminal cases, and the social and political context against which they were set – are told in straightforward, gripping prose in Ito’s memoir Black Box: The Memoir That Sparked Japan’s #MeToo Movement. The story it recounts (translated to English by Allison Markin Powell) is astonishing, infuriating, and yet ultimately inspiring.

Over the next several months after her initial report, the investigation inched forward, Ito acquiring and providing much of the evidence on her own. She gradually convinced the recalcitrant police investigator, and after prodigious effort on her part, she was told an arrest warrant had been issued and Yamaguchi would be arrested at the airport on his pending return to Japan.

Then, at the last minute, an order came to abort the arrest. The investigator – who had begun to take Ito’s account seriously – was taken off the case and re-assigned, as was the public prosecutor who was his superior. Something was clearly afoot at a level higher than anyone had anticipated.

The facts surrounding these events remain murky, but subsequent investigations by Ito and others have revealed several pertinent facts. As investigators closed in on him, Yamaguchi was preparing to publish a significant biography of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; he was an acquaintance of both the prime minister and his wife. The arrest aborted, his book came out and Yamaguchi became a media star, commenting widely on Abe’s career and political legacy.

All signs pointed to the arrest having been quashed by the Chief of Criminal Investigations at Tokyo Metropolitan Police, Itaru Nakamura. He was politically connected and had worked closely with senior members of the Japanese cabinet. Yamaguchi himself inadvertently implicated another important politician. After receiving a series of questions from one newspaper, it appears he intended to forward the questions to a third-party, but accidentally forwarded this communique back to the original reporters who had emailed him. This error on his part revealed he was consulting closely with someone whom reporters presumed to be Shigeru Kitamura, the Director of Cabinet Intelligence for the Japanese government.

The implication of some of the highest-ranking members of the Japanese government, intervening in the investigation to protect Yamaguchi, is remarkable. Ito, her journalistic colleagues, and supporters did an incredible job sleuthing out these connections, and the twists and turns of the case lend her book the quality of a riveting political thriller.

But that’s not the main purpose of Black Box. It is, above all, an indictment of the haphazard and incompetent manner in which sexual assault is handled by all levels of relevant authorities in Japan, from hospitals and help-lines to the police. Ito systematically dissects these flaws: clinics staffed by unsympathetic men and unequipped with rape kits; sexual assault groups that refuse to give advice over the phone, only in-person.

When she finally reports the assault to the police, they enact every trope in the book. They warn her that sexual assault cases are difficult to prosecute; they ask her invasive questions about her sex life and what she was wearing. A horrifying practice of sexual assault investigations at the time – one would hope this at least has changed – was to require the survivor to re-enact the assault, using dolls, while (male) officers observe and take photos.

Even before high-level interventions were made in her case, investigators discouraged Ito from proceeding. They warned her it would ruin her career to file a complaint against a prestigious man in her field. When the police investigation stalled, they actively encouraged her to drop it and pursue a civil case instead, going so far as to escort her in a police car to a lawyer they conveniently made available for precisely that purpose, free of charge. The over-the-top conniving and incompetence of the Japanese police would be almost comical if the circumstances weren’t so serious.

Throughout Black Box, Ito contextualizes her struggle as part of the broader fight for sexual assault reform. She cites other cases in Japan, underscoring how broad and systemic the problem is, and also juxtaposes Japan’s legal responses to sexual assault against those of other countries. Sweden’s higher case numbers, for instance, are the result not just of different methods of documenting assaults but also of an environment more conducive for reporting. Women make up nearly a third of Sweden’s police force, compared to less than ten percent in Japan.

Wherever Ito turned, it seemed, she was surrounded by cold and unsympathetic men – in police stations, at medical clinics, among the journalists reporting her case. Japan has one of the lowest rates of reported sexual assault (1.1 per 100,000 population), and this statistic drives official claims that it’s not a problem in Japan. Yet as Ito’s work reveals, the reason reported assaults are so low is because the entire system is stacked against survivors and their ability to report right from the outset.

The authorities’ lax and permissive response toward sexual assault is part and parcel of a broader social atmosphere laced with misogyny, and Ito draws this connection with devastating precision. She recounts examples of chikan – groping – she experienced from strangers from early childhood onward. Growing recognition of this problem has led to the designation of women-only cars in Japanese transit, but that merely treats one of the problem’s symptoms.

Meanwhile, opinion surveys she cites reveal a lingering failure to grasp the notion of consent. Ito’s book does a superb job of demonstrating how sexual assault, and the hapless response of authorities to reported assaults, is facilitated by, and part and parcel of, the broader problem of misogyny in Japanese society.

It’s hard to read the book without a rising sense of fury at the incompetence and backwardness of the police and judiciary at each and every turn. But that fury is a necessary precursor to the type of sweeping reform that is needed not just in Japan (although particularly in Japan), but in western countries as well, where #MeToo has underscored the broad and international basis of the movement battling against sexual assault and the misogynistic attitudes that facilitate it.

Ito’s skills as a journalist shine through in her account. Taking the experience of her assault, she turns her analytical and investigative skills onto both the specific example of her case, as well as the broader structural and societal problems that frame it. She pursues her case with a tenacity that’s deeply inspiring, but she is equally probing and analytical in sharing her emotional and psychological reactions to the attack. Her ability to weave the personal with an analysis of the structural intensifies the impact of this powerful book.

Throughout the process, she refuses to acquiesce to tropes and stereotypes. Not only does she refuse to give up her case in the face of all the official and even family pressure leveled against her, but she rejects more subtle norms as well. While giving a press conference about her case, she politely rejects the advice she’s given by fellow journalists about what to wear, opting for a linen shirt instead of the typical dark ‘recruitment’ suit they recommend. In a society where image plays such an important role, such choices convey a particular power.

“I wanted to do away with the preconceived image of a victim wearing a white shirt, buttoned all the way up, looking sad,” she writes. “I refuse to be confined to the stereotype of a victim, which I believe is flawed to begin with.

The book’s title – Black Box – is the term used by prosecutors to refer to the closed room in which a sexual assault takes place; a space in which they claim it is impossible to objectively know what went on and whether consent was given or not. Ito’s book smashes that box open, revealing the misogynistic and regressive attitudes that belie its lingering power in Japan’s legal system.

Black Box is a remarkable achievement from a talented journalist who turns her reporter’s lens on her own traumatizing experience of sexual assault. Yet amid the fury and outrage that the reader cannot help but feel, it also generates a sense of hope. The odds stacked against Ito – against any survivor – seemed insurmountable, and despite her inspiring efforts, her criminal case was repeatedly dismissed (she eventually won a civil case and roughly $30k in damages; Yamaguchi’s counter-suit for defamation was dismissed).

Yet the mere fact of bringing all this into the open has helped to spark a furious public dialogue, and that, she observes, is half the battle. She quotes Jodi Kantor, the New York Times journalist who reported on the sexual assaults of Harvey Weinstein: “You cannot solve a problem that you can’t see.”

“I want to continue to make things visible, to bring them into the light,” writes Ito. “Because that’s how they will change.” 

RATING 9 / 10