BOOK REVIEW: BLACK BOX

In her white-hot memoir, Shiori Ito arrives as a warrior resolved to expose a social injustice long obscured by societal norms. Through her pain and trauma, this young woman displays undisguised bravery and fortitude. As an advocate for other females who have suffered or may suffer gender-based violence, Ito writes, “Keeping my shame and anger to myself wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Black Box is an eye-opening account revealing cultural, hierarchical, and systemic problems in Japanese society. With it, Ito shines a bright light into a broken system that reduces victims of rape and sexual assault in Japan to invisible anomalies. In protracted, quiet anguish, Ito publicly challenges these ingrained injustices, demonstrating a steadfast, lonely majesty against power.

In a refreshing twist to memoir, Ito periodically interacts with her readers, soliciting their opinions, offering advice, and beseeching them to learn more. She delivers a strong message. “Unless we call out things that we see as abnormal, we have no choice but to accept the wanton fate that befalls us. If we remain silent, whatever problems we face will continue to be reflected, like a mirror, for the rest of our own lives as well as the lives of generations to come.”

Widely recognised as the account that spurred the #MeToo movement in Japan, Black Box has received international acclaim as a critical exposé on the urgent need to support victims of sexual violence. Reforms in Japan are vital to address failures in police investigations, access to justice, updates to antiquated laws, and the provision of sympathetic social services.

Ito adroitly paints a picture of her early life as a high-spirited, confident girl. “Not the kind of child who could be bribed with candy, I was stubborn and willful,” she writes. Even at a very young age, Ito recognised that school norms dictated that “you mustn’t stand out…you weren’t allowed to stray from the path laid out for you.”

“This was my first taste of the pain of existing within the closed order of society,” Ito relates. These early insights provide the backdrop for a cultural reckoning, centuries in the making.

Through her journey, she carries us from her schoolgirl days to becoming a young lady who “dreamed of testing my abilities in a place where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone.” Her determination brings her to a student-exchange program, through which she was sent to Kansas. Although she changed host families several times, she was always in Kansas, moving from small, dusty towns to cattle ranches. Struggling to understand her schooling and surrounded by nothing but vast, open space populated only with Kansans, she feels “a growing urge for connection with and information about the outside world, and I saw that this thirst could be quenched by international news programs.” Ito knew then that she wanted to become a journalist and resolved to study in New York.

Years later, and after many strategic detours, this determined 24-year-old student made it to New York. Here is where she first met Noriyuki Yamaguchi while working at a piano bar in September 2013. She tells how she was talking with a customer about her studies in journalism, when the gentleman pointed Yamaguchi out to her and said, “That guy is the Washington bureau chief for TBS,” – the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Through her conversations with Yamaguchi that evening, Ito was connected with an internship at Nippon Television (NTV) in New York a year later. “As far as I was concerned, Mr. Yamaguchi was a successful journalist, someone who knew a lot of people, and was friendly about making introductions. Nothing more, nothing less.” Ito substantiates their professional relationship throughout with her consistent use of honorific language while addressing Yamaguchi.

When circumstances brought her back to Tokyo two-and-a-half years later, Ito reached out to Yamaguchi to inquire about paid positions with TBS’s Washington bureau. Their communications led to the evening when, while he was in Tokyo, Yamaguchi invited Ito to meet to talk more about opportunities they had discussed. On April 3, 2015, Shiori Ito’s life changed forever.

In her unvarnished account, Ito asserts she was raped by the prominent and politically well-connected television professional Yamaguchi while she was in an unconscious state. At his invitation, Ito had accompanied Yamaguchi to dinner and drinks to discuss obtaining a visa for a potential job opportunity in the United States. During the evening, she became incapacitated and ill, passing out at the restaurant, where Yamaguchi was known to the owner. She later suspected she had been drugged.

“The intense pain was what made me regain consciousness,” she describes. Finding herself in a hotel room with no memory of how she ended up there, Ito’s confusion and despair are evident in her statement, “Neither the recognition that I had regained consciousness, nor my repeated pleas that I was in pain, made him stop what he was doing.” Her recounting of Yamaguchi’s behavior is astonishing and painful to read.

Equally devastating are Ito’s subsequent experiences with medical providers, police investigators, and a legal system whose practices evidence a severe lack of compassion and trauma-informed care. Highlighting the ideological status quo, Ito shares how “[T]he hospital, the hotlines, the police – none of these institutions were there to save me. I was astounded to realise this about the society I had been living in so blissfully unaware.”

Ito’s description of the insensitivity and inadequacy of procedures that sex crime victims are required to undergo is unnerving. In the process of making a police report, and during the investigation, she was compelled to relate in vivid detail, time and again, the occurrences of her rape: the before, the during, and the after. Even more humiliating, and with no female official present, she was made to reenact the circumstances with a life-size doll in a room full of male investigators:

“Lie down there, please,” I was told, as I lay face up on the blue mat, surrounded by men. One of the investigators placed a large doll on top of me.

“Like this?” “Or was it more like this?” they asked as they rearranged the doll.

It was then, after she went to the police, that Ito came to the scalding realisation that authorities would minimise her allegations and that avenues for recourse were slim. “This kind of thing happens all the time, and there’s no easy way to investigate cases like these,” she was told.

And, under the legal term of “quasi-rape” – which refers to sexual assault that happens when a person is incapacitated – the victim must prove not only that intercourse occurred but also that it was non-consensual. In her case, despite video evidence of an unconscious Ito being half-dragged, half-carried through the hotel lobby by Yamaguchi on the night in question, the prosecution indicated to Ito that, without a witness, a third party cannot know what goes on behind closed doors; thus, her claim was a “black box.”

Ito talks about the “wall of consent” – legal and judicial roadblocks that exist for female victims of sexual assault, compounded by the consistent patriarchal undertone of Japanese society. An historic Japanese mentality that women must conform, or “put up with it,” overlooks and pardons sexual violence.

Bringing all of this into sharp relief is the fact that thirteen is considered the age of consent for females in Japan…not to mention the clearly non-consensual and widely conventional practice of public groping, known as “chikan,” to which girls and women are commonly subjected.

Under the blanket of pervasive sexism in Japanese culture, how, and with what supports, is a woman or a young girl who is not allowed to speak out able to prove that consent was not given? Ito states, “The crime of quasi-rape seemed unenforceable within Japanese law.”

Ito’s professional journalism is evident in the facts she presents in her memoir. She educates the reader in sex crime statistics; the prevalent use of “date-rape” drugs and their effects; pitiable victim supports; inadequate police procedures; and obstructive laws and judicial proceedings encountered by victims of quasi-rape.

Ito’s fearless pursuit of the truth eventually resulted in enough evidence being gathered for the police to issue an arrest warrant. However, on the day Yamaguchi’s arrest was to take place, an order “from the top” canceled the warrant. This unusual, high-level decision also removed both the Takanawa Police Department investigating officer and the prosecutor in charge from the case. It was then transferred to supervising authority Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.

Yamaguchi was known to have close ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and in fact had written his biography. Suspicions arose that some governmental influence may have been invoked to quash the warrant for Yamaguchi’s arrest. According to Ito, “the link between Mr. Yamaguchi’s personal connections and the arrest being called off was essential context for the case.”

“I felt frustrated by my own insignificance,” Ito tells us.

Over many months, charges were refiled; the case stalled and became convoluted. Ito relates conversations with the newly assigned prosecutor, who allowed “… he could be convicted but, to be frank, it’s difficult with the evidence we have. He’s a deplorable man. He’s habituated to this behavior – I can’t help but think he’s done this to others.” 

The same prosecutor stated, “Criminal law in the United States…allows for prosecution based on objective facts rather than on subjective accounts. In Japan, even when the suspect’s guilt is clear, objective circumstances on their own are not enough for a conviction unless there is an admission of guilt.” In July 2016, a ruling was announced dismissing the criminal charges as “non-prosecutable.”

Ito filed an application to reopen her case. In a decision to “bear witness,” she held a press conference, airing her allegations against Yamaguchi. But things did not turn out as expected; the community support the West has seen as part of the #MeToo movement did not happen for Ito. Instead, she suffered backlash in the media and was publicly mocked and criticised. “Following the press conference, my personal information was made public,” Ito relates. “I was harassed and threatened, and I was bombarded with scathing emails.”

Ito’s memoir is a brave, personal example of investigative journalism. It highlights the ideological Japanese governmental substructure that serves to benumb the victimised and uphold the ugliest hubristic male arrogance.

One cannot help but cheer her on as she gives volume to the many lost female voices, mounting her attack on this treachery in quiet rage, and with sheer determination to be heard and to make a difference. Global news program The World’s Global Post summed it up. “Ito is a beacon of change to many in Japan who have never heard a woman stand up in public and challenge the status quo.”

Since the 2017 publication of Black Box in Japan, grassroots movements to tackle crimes against women and stamp out the social taboo of speaking out have taken hold in Tokyo. Men of prominence in corporate Japan and in Japanese government have been accused of sexual harassment, including Junichi Fukuda, vice finance minister for administration; his resignation is one of the most senior associated with the #MeToo movement in Japan.

While much reform is still needed, this movement for social change is receiving due attention in Japan. In December 2019, Ito won a civil case against Yamaguchi and was awarded 3.3 million yen ($30,000 US, £22,917 UK).

The courage and tenacity of Shiori Ito, and others like her, have finally brought the tsunami of justice to the women of Japan.

Black Box
By Shiori Ito
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Tilted Axis Press, 224 pages

About Ingrid Petty

Ingrid Petty is an author of narrative non-fiction and aspiring memoirist based in San Antonio, Texas. After a career in law and philanthropy, she wrote her first book, "The Kronkosky Foundation Story: Creating Profound Good Through Community Philanthropy." Now in publication with Maverick Books and Trinity University Press, it is due to be released in November 2021.

Ingrid Petty is an author of narrative non-fiction and aspiring memoirist based in San Antonio, Texas. After a career in law and philanthropy, she wrote her first book, "The Kronkosky Foundation Story: Creating Profound Good Through Community Philanthropy." Now in publication with Maverick Books and Trinity University Press, it is due to be released in November 2021.

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