By Helen Regan, Saki Toi and Alex Stambaugh, CNN
Tokyo (CNN) – A Japanese court on Tuesday found three ex-soldiers guilty of sexual assault following a high-profile case that exposed a widespread culture of harassment in the military, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The Fukushima District Court ruled the three men had committed forcible indecency against Rina Gonoi, their former female subordinate in the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), who had battled through the courts and on social media to bring them to account.
The court sentenced the trio to two years in prison with a suspended sentence, NHK reported, which could allow them to avoid jail time if they do not commit a crime over the next two years.
According to NHK, the three men used martial arts techniques to pin Gonoi down and engage in lewd acts on top of her. They admitted they had pinned her down, but denied engaging in lewd acts, NHK reported. All three had pleaded not guilty.
Gonoi says she endured physical and verbal sexual abuse on a daily basis for more than a year while serving in the JSDF, and vowed to bring her tormentors to justice when she left the military in June 2022.
Authorities initially seemed unwilling to believe her. When she reported the alleged abuse to military authorities, two investigations were launched, but both were dropped on grounds of lack of evidence – prompting her to take the battle to social media.
It was a rare move in a country where sexual assault survivors can face backlash for raising their voices. But it paid off, as Japan’s Defense Ministry eventually launched a broad investigation into sexual harassment across the JSDF.
“I wanted to help other people who had also been sexually harassed (in the JSDF). As for the perpetrators, I wanted an apology and for them to admit to what they had done; I wanted to prevent others from going through what I went through; that’s why I spoke out,” Gonoi told CNN in July.
Prosecutors reopened an investigation that found she had endured physical and verbal sexual harassment daily between late 2020 and August 2021, according to Gonoi’s lawyers. The Ministry of Defense offered a rare admission of guilt and public apology, with five servicemen dishonorably dismissed and four others punished, according to NHK.
Ground Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff Yoshihide Yoshida also issued a rare admission in September 2022, saying: “On behalf of the Ground Self-Defense Force, I would like to express my deepest apologies to Ms. Gonoi, who has been suffering for a long time. I am very sorry.”
But for Gonoi, it wasn’t enough, and she pursued both criminal and civil cases in the courts, including lawsuits filed against the government and her alleged assailants.
A report commissioned by the Ministry of Defense in August found what it said is an entrenched culture of harassment and fear within Japan’s military. It reviewed 1,325 reports of harassment, with some victims saying they felt “passed around” by counselors or “thrown in the rubbish,” the report found. Some said they never received a response from the JSDF after reporting their harassment, even after meeting with counselors.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at the time that “drastic measures” were needed and promised reforms.
As a child, Gonoi said she saw JSDF members as heroes. She grew up wanting to be like them after women officers – in particular – came to her rescue following the deadly 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that decimated her hometown of Higashi-Matsushima in Japan’s northern prefecture of Miyagi.
Years later, it would be a posting to a JSDF station in Fukushima – another area that was decimated by the 2011 disaster – where she told CNN she first experienced sexual harassment.
“They’d comment on my body and the size of my breasts. Or they’d come up to me in the hallways and suddenly hug me in the corridor. That kind of thing happened daily,” Gonoi recalled of her time in the station.
The last straw came in August 2021, when Gonoi said she was pinned to a dormitory floor as several senior male officers simulated sexual intercourse. It was this incident that convinced her to report her assailants.
But Gonoi’s claims were dismissed, and no action was taken internally within the JSDF.
“They initially didn’t admit that they’d done anything wrong. They tried to cover up what I’d gone through, but then a re-investigation was ordered. That’s when they admitted what I’d gone through,” said Gonoi.
An external investigation was also dropped due to “lack of evidence” as none of the male personnel who witnessed her sexual assault would provide testimony.
It was only by going public that Gonoi was able to pressure the JSDF into a rethink.
The case reached the highest levels, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida saying during a parliamentary meeting last October that he understood sexual harassment cases were handled inappropriately by the Self-Defense Force and the Ministry of Defense.
He asserted that the government and Defense Ministry were committed to eradicating all forms of harassment.
“We are aware that the perpetrators of sexual harassment cases are scheduled to be punished severely. We are also conducting a special defense inspection to thoroughly identify harassment. We are committed to eradicating all forms of harassment,” he said.
CNN’s Jessie Yeung, Emiko Jozuka, Marc Stewart, Junko Ogura, Moeri Karasawa and Daniel Campisi contributed reporting.