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Japan's film industry under pressure over abuse

Julian Ryall Tokyo
August 11, 2022

The Japanese film industry is following in the footsteps of the #MeToo campaign in other parts of the world, although some fear it will be impossible to entirely stamp out abuse that has become commonplace.

Cinemas in Osaka, Japan
Japan's movie sector is under growing pressure to clean up its actImage: AFLO/IMAGO

Actors, production crew and off-screen workers in Japan's movie and television industry have launched a campaign against harassment and sexual assault in the sector, which they describe as "a hotbed of sexual violence and abuse."

Japan's entertainment industry has long been rumored to be rife with unscrupulous men using their power to coerce newcomers and up-and-coming starlets, as well as closing ranks to cover up any misdeeds that reach the ears of the police or media.

In the wake of the #MeToo campaign in other parts of the world, however, Japan's movie sector is under growing pressure to clean up its act. 

The turning point in Hollywood was arguably the arrest in May 2018 of Harvey Weinstein, the influential movie producer and founder of the entertainment firm Miramax.

At least 80 women came forward to allege that Weinstein had used his position to sexually harass or assault them. Weinstein, now 70, was found guilty in February 2020 of two felonies and sentenced to 23 years in prison, with more charges filed in Los Angeles in 2021. 

Claims against Japanese directors

It took a few years for the campaign to cross the Pacific, but an article appeared in the Shukan Bunshun magazine including claims made by several women that director Hideo Sakaki had coerced them into having sex with him in return for roles in his films, or during acting workshops.

Sakaki, the director of "Mitsugestu," which means "Honeymoon," issued an apology but disputed parts of the article. 

Similar claims have emerged against Shion Sono, the director of a number of feature films, including "Cold Fish" and "Ai no Mukidashi," or "Love Exposure," while actor Houka Kinoshita has announced that he is taking a break from appearing on screen after two women accused him of demanding sex. 

In a statement issued by his management company, Kinoshita said, "I cannot appear before you and continue with my entertainment work after what I have done, and I will be taking leave for an indefinite period."

In April, a new group called the Association to End Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in the Film and Moving Image Industry released a strongly worded statement demanding that all forms of abuse within the industry end. The association is made up of some of the most high-profile members of the domestic movie industry, including director Mipo O, actors Midori Suiren and Yumi Ishikawa and screenwriter Takehiko Minato.

The statement was given added impetus when Ishikawa claimed that director Sakaki demanded she have sex with him in return for a part in one of his films. 

"We, as victims, emphatically state that there should be no more people damaged or suffering in silence," the association said. 

Open letter calls out abuse

The open letter added that sexual violence in the industry is the result of the powerful "making use of status and power relations," with directors or producers "coercing an actor into having sexual intercourse on condition of casting." Those who are the targets of such approaches fear the consequences if they refuse, including losing their jobs and being ostracized and ruled out of more projects in the future. 

"There are many people that have suffered damage but do not have the means to deal with it," the statement added. "They remain silent and endure the pain. 

"At the root are the harsh working conditions of film and moving image production," the association said. "A poor working environment can be a hotbed for sexual violence and abuse." 

Akemi Sugawara, a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, said the organization was implementing measures to stop abuse in the industry.

"It goes without saying that the association is firmly opposed to any forms of violence and harassment, including sexual violence, which it considers to be unacceptable," she told DW. 

"Based on this policy, the association is taking part in a campaign to ensure the appropriateness of activities on film production sites," she added.

"This initiative is being carried out in conjunction with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry with the aim of improving the environment at production sites through the introduction of guidelines, restrictions on working hours and other measures that we believe will prevent various types of harassment."

Pakistani entertainers create own #MeToo movement

Minimal optimism for change

Others linked to the industry are less optimistic that real change is likely.

Kaori Shoji, long-time film critic for The Japan Times, says the problem remains worldwide but at least a spotlight is being placed on abuse in many parts of the world.

"Here in Japan, I hear women talking about it all the time," she said. "The film and media industry here is more old-fashioned and patriarchal than any other sector in Japan, and that's saying something. 

"Other industries may have moved on, but the media here is controlled by men and too many of them are willing to abuse the powers they have over women," she said, adding that there are enough women who feel that the trade-off of a bigger part in a movie and improved career prospects for sex is acceptable. 

"These women won't cry or make a fuss because they don't want to rock the boat," she said. "And that has not gone away. The industry may be airing its dirty laundry in public with these cases at the moment, but there are plenty more to come."

Edited by: Leah Carter