End Sexual Violence Against Female University Students in Japan: Advocacy in Action from UTokyo VAW

by Lauren Power

Advocacy in Action from the University of Tokyo Violence Against Women Working Group

Photo by @palidachan

On March 8, 2021, we celebrate International Women’s Day. It is a time to honor the successful efforts of feminists and advocates for the rights of women and girls. It is also an opportunity to develop new strategies and renew commitments to tackle the persistent sexism, discrimination, violence and exploitation against women that persist. On this day, the University of Tokyo Violence Against Women Working Group (UT VAW) is pleased to share our latest advocacy in action.

Sexual harassment and violence against female university students in Japan never seems to end. There is a lack of awareness and access to mechanisms of support and justice for victims, barriers to reporting instances of abuse and violence, and reluctance of Japanese universities and the state to gather and/or share data on this critical issue. In response to this failure to take effective measures on the part of the Japanese university system and the Japanese state to provide a safe education environment for female university students, free from sexual harassment and violence and with access to mechanisms of support and justice, UT VAW calls for universities and government ministries to take immediate action to address this issue and advocates for immediate structural change that will ensure the health, safety and dignity of female university students in Japan.

The problem is caused by a lack of access to mechanisms of support and protection for victims, a breakdown in accountability processes for perpetrators, and a general tolerance of sexual harassment and violence as normal for women in the university setting. It is further perpetuated by the neglect of university leadership to acknowledge and investigate the issue, and the reluctance of the Japanese state to hold universities accountable for protecting their female students. The lack of access to support and protection mechanisms for victims of sexual assault on university campuses in Japan is three-fold: there are inadequate university services and counselors trained to provide the specific forms of support and protection needed by victims of sexual assault, there is insufficient education provided to university faculty and staff on sexual misconduct or harassment, and there is little to no information provided to students about what to do to find help in the event of sexual harassment or violence.

It is not possible to give an accurate account of the scale, frequency or key dates for occurrences of sexual violence against female university students in Japan because Japanese universities and the state have declined to collect data on the issue and, in some cases, have also prevented civil society and student-led organizations from doing so, which is a significant problem in itself. The resulting lack of information as such stands as a barrier for accountability and is also a serious problem. The problems facing female university students in Japan has received little to no attention from the Japanese state and is not mentioned in CEDAW’s recommendations to Japan (2016), although the particular and ongoing vulnerabilities of some other groups (e.g., women from ethnic minorities) are addressed with regard to the issue of rape and sexual violence. In February 2021, UT VAW submitted a complaint to the UN-OHCHR Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women because we believe that female university students in Japan are a uniquely vulnerable group and that the aforementioned transgressions they face go largely undocumented, unresolved and unknown.

In our letter of complaint to the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, we describe several specific recent cases at prominent universities in Japan at which our UT VAW members have personal associations and/or insider knowledge. The problem of sexual harassment and violence against female university students in Japan, however, is not limited to these cases or universities. Rather, these instances are indicative of a much larger, more wide-spread issue that is and has been persistent at tertiary education institutions throughout Japan. We argue that university policies (or lack thereof) and common university and social practices put female university students in Japan in a vulnerable position, especially in terms of their rights to physical integrity, dignity, non-discrimination, health, family life and education. The root of the problem is deep, reflecting the state and society’s discriminatory belief and gender profiling in general.

The criticality of protecting female university students in Japan cannot be overstated. In Japan, still a strongly patriarchal and conservative society, women must have courage, confidence and resilience to challenge the oppressive gender stereotypes, discrimination and lack of support that often limit their careers and roles within society. The sexual assaults they endure as youths can deepen into scars that may continue to cause pain, damage their sense of self-worth and cripple their ability to achieve their potential throughout their lives. To safeguard female university students in Japan is not only about preventing sexual violence for young women; it is the foundation for a progressive future of empowerment and gender equality for all women in Japan.

Read the full letter of complaint here:

Special-Rapporteur-VAW-Letter for blog
Download P • 185KB

About the University of Tokyo Violence Against Women Working Group (UT VAW)

The University of Tokyo Violence Against Women Working Group (UT VAW) was founded in 2020 by Lauren Power, Misha Cade, and Jian Rzeszewicz, a group of female graduate students studying international human rights law at the University of Tokyo. On behalf of vulnerable women and girls in Japan, the UT VAW advocates for the elimination of all forms of violence against women. To that end, UT VAW is committed to connecting vulnerable women and girls to services and resources that can meet their needs, researching barriers and solutions for improving gender equality in Japan, and partnering with community stakeholders and other advocacy groups for capacity-building and the protection and empowerment of vulnerable women and girls in Japan.

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