A Japanese court on Monday convicted three former soldiers of sexually assaulting a female colleague, in a high-profile case that prompted national outrage and demands for the military to tackle widespread sexism.
Victim Was Assaulted Over 40 Times, Forced to Give In to Demands
The defendants were all found guilty of indecency resulting in death or injury over the multiple assaults against Rina Gonoi while they served in a division of Japan’s army in different parts of the country. The court said Gonoi was forced into giving in to their demands over fears about her future career.
The court handed suspended terms to the men behind the multiple assaults, which took place between 2016 and 2018 while they all served in the Ground Self-Defense Force northeast of Tokyo.
Gonoi said she was assaulted 30 to 40 times and initially gave in to their demands, worried that reporting the incidents would spark workplace retaliation and hurt her career.
“Even as I was getting assaulted by those three, I thought about my parents who had given up so much just so their daughter could have good opportunities, so I didn’t want to just quit midway,” she said in her recent interview.
The defence argued that the acts were consensual, but Judge Yokoyama said in the ruling that “none of the suspects showed remorse…It is clear that they still do not realise the gravity of their crimes.”
Case Brought Widespread Attention to Sex Crimes in Military
The case brought unprecedented attention on military sexual abuse in Japan after Gonoi broke her silence last year, inspired by the global #MeToo movement.
Japan maintains a Self-Defense Force for national security, but the military operates with limited oversight and incidents often go unreported or unpunished.
Gonoi alleged she was regularly assaulted by several servicemen, starting when she was a 19-year-old private in 2016. At one point she showed up late for duty, but superiors refused to permit her to explain why and instead made her apologise repeatedly to her unit.
“I didn’t want the others to think I was a coward, so every time I was told to do something I thought was wrong, I did it,” she recalled of that time.
She left the military in 2021 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her alleged attackers remained enlisted, with some promoted during the trial period.
Gonoi went public with her allegations in March 2022, circumventing the military process by speaking to media first, a rare step in Japan.
Verdict A Major Win for Victims
Monday’s verdict represents a major victory for victims after years of campaigning by activists against a culture of abuse in the military.
“I am happy. This verdict today is an accomplishment not only for me but for all people who find it difficult to speak up,” Gonoi told reporters after the ruling.
A series of sexual abuse and harassment scandals prompted the government last year to strengthen oversight and accountability by appointing the country’s first-ever civilian leader at the defence ministry.
The case also helped motivate a change to Japan’s 107-year-old rape law, which now recognises male victims and carries tougher penalties. But the revised law still does not stipulate that sex without consent constitutes rape.
What’s Next: Continued Pressure for Reform
Activists say military sexual abuse remains widespread, but victims are still reluctant to come forward despite reforms introduced after the landmark case.
While the verdict represents progress, campaigners argue much more still needs to be done to transform military culture and prevent abuse. There are also calls for broader reforms to protect sexual abuse victims in the wider society.
The defence ministry is now surveying 80,000 personnel to gauge the extent of abuse in the ranks. The results have not yet been released publicly, but are expected to lead to further steps to prevent misconduct.
As survivors like Gonoi continue speaking out and demanding change, pressure will stay on leaders to keep strengthening laws and oversight to end the culture of impunity around sex crimes.
This landmark case has sparked an important public debate on abuse, but achieving true change across Japanese institutions will likely require a long-term, society-wide reckoning.
| Key Figures | Background & Role |
|Rina Gonoi| Victim, ex-soldier who broke her silence about assault by colleagues|
|3 defendants| Former soldiers convicted of assaulting Gonoi multiple times|
|40+ | Estimated number of times Gonoi was assaulted 2016-2018|
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