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Japanese soldier's court win shines light on sexual assault in military

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Japan, a female former soldier won a high-profile court case that shone a rare light on cases of sexual assault in the country's military. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that the verdict is seen as both a victory for human rights and a setback for Japan's efforts to beef up its military. And a note - this story includes details of sexual assault.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The Fukushima District Court found three ex-soldiers guilty of forced indecency against fellow soldier Rina Gonoi. The court sentenced them to two-year jail terms but suspended the sentence, meaning they won't serve time unless they violate their probation. Plaintiff Rina Gonoi, 24, said outside the courthouse that the verdict is good for Japanese society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RINA GONOI: (Through interpreter) I think there are many people who can't raise their voices and fight back. And now that we have this precedent, I hope that more people will raise their voices and say that doing bad things is bad.

KUHN: Gonoi said that during a 2021 exercise, the three soldiers pinned her down, spread her legs and rubbed their crotches against her. Gonoi reported the case to her superiors, but they dismissed it, claiming insufficient evidence. The defendants maintained their innocence, claiming what they did was just for laughs. Gonoi left the army and went public with her story in a YouTube video last year. Japan's Defense Ministry publicly apologized and launched an investigation. It uncovered more than 1,400 complaints from both men and women of sexual harassment and bullying in the military. Gonoi says she feels vindicated by the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONOI: (Through interpreter) I think today we showed that this is a serious crime that cannot be tolerated just for the sake of getting laughs. I hope the defendants will seriously face up to their actions.

KUHN: Online, meanwhile, people accused Gonoi of lying or trying to make money. Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo, says that in many Japanese institutions, whistleblowers are seen as troublemakers.

JEFFREY HALL: There's a lot of skepticism towards claims that will break the harmony of an organization or bring reputational damage to an organization.

KUHN: He adds that the extensive abuse that Gonoi's suit exposed is not a good advertisement for careers in Japan's military.

HALL: It's a big problem for them and their goal of expanding their defense capabilities as their population shrinks.

KUHN: Japan's military missed its recruitment target for fiscal year 2022 by more than half. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR XAMA SONG, "EU CHOREI NAS MARGENS DO RIO NEGRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.