#MeToo, #WithYou: An Examination of the Social Attitudes Concerning Sexual Violence in South Korea a
Warning: this article contains possibly sensitive content (discussion of sexual harassment, sexual assault)
The above are two similar phrases that nonetheless reflect a large difference in attitude and method of expressing support and solidarity.
The phrase “Me, too” was originally coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 with the goal of helping sexual harassment and sexual assault victims to find solidarity and support on their journey to healing. Since then, the hashtag and movement has gone viral and the power of its message encouraged women from all over the world to come forward, both to obtain support and to share their stories. However, there remain large differences in the level of support that #MeToo has managed to secure in each country.
Effects of #MeToo around the world
Though it began in the USA, #MeToo has since spread to many countries around the world, much of the time to differing levels of efficacy. In particular, many countries in East Asia have seen markedly smaller successes in terms of women’s empowerment due to a variety of factors. Of these factors, media portrayal of sexual assault survivors has been one of the most obvious ways of observing the differences in attitude. A paper published by Linda Hasunuma and Ki-young Shin titled “#MeToo in Japan and South Korea: #WeToo, #With You” under the Routledge imprint covers this in detail through a comparative analysis of the effect of women’s activism in the two countries.
Unlike the movement in South Korea, which shares many similarities with the original movement in the United States, open expressions of solidarity and self-identification as a survivor of sexual violence remain unpopular in Japan. Instead, it was supplanted by #WeToo, a much quieter and less individual-focused movement that encourages women to gather in support of a few prominent cases while remaining anonymous themselves.
Though it is no less powerful of a movement, the need for a separate movement indicates the presence of lessons to be learnt. Namely, they revolve around the nature of media, the importance of social narratives in the portrayal of sexual harassment and assault cases, and the effect of patient-victim dynamics.
Lesson #1: Media as Gatekeeper
Media and the people that control it are very powerful gatekeepers who, in many cases, are active participants in the sidelining of survivors of sexual violence. In fact, according to Hasunuma and Shin, media coverage played a pivotal role in the differences between South Korea and Japan with regards to the success of the #MeToo movement. In South Korea, cases of sexual harassment and assault were covered to a much greater extent with media itself serving as a platform for survivors to speak out. This resulted in the amassing of considerable support in the form of a powerful grassroots movement that has seen considerable successes since its inception.
Conversely, far fewer women have “gone public” in Japan and, when they do, they experience very different media portrayals. Most often, they quickly come under vicious fire from the online community and even the very sources reporting their cases. Shiori Ito, a Japanese journalist whose case is considered the face of the #MeToo movement in Japan, was forced to leave the country for her own safety after coming forward. For her story, she received mocking, doubt, and multiple death threats. This result is arguably due to the public portrayal of her case and her person. Under such hostile conditions, it is not difficult to see how many women would choose not to pursue justice.
Lesson #2: The Effect of Prominent Social Narratives
Social narratives can be defined as ingrained cultural stories that are used for explanatory purposes in situations of unclarity. They are especially dominant in media stories, which often “cast” characters in their “appropriate” roles in the situation as seen by the predominant social norms and beliefs at the time.
This is very clearly illustrated in the case in Japan against former Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda by a TV Asahi reporter. Her claims were later dismissed by Finance Minister Taro Aso, who claimed to have “‘talked’ with Fukuda, [hinting] that he had been [the] victim of a honey trap”.
The female reporter has chosen to remain anonymous.
The social narrative of the promiscuous and/or sly female and the unsuspecting male is one that has been implicitly repeated throughout both this case and that of Ito’s. It is perpetuated by both men and women and contributes greatly to the continued culture of victim-blaming and shame that prevents victims from reaching out after the fact. Other destructive narratives include the absolute dominance of a superior over his subordinate and the absolute need to maintain group harmony, even at the cost of allowing violations to go unaddressed. In order to provide a more hospitable environment for survivors that is safe and relatively free of stigma, it is absolutely necessary to rewrite the damaging social narratives that are more often than not perpetuated in media.
Lesson #3: Influential Factors Beyond Access to Support
In Japan, fewer than 5% of women officially report rape.
Part of the reason is, in many cases and especially in the workplace, the male that commits the crime holds more power than the female and is in a more stable position job-wise. Thus, there is a higher chance of negative consequences for the victim than the perpetrator, leading to a general culture of endurance and normalisation. According to Kumiko Nakatsuka, the former president of the Asahi Shimbun Workers’ Union Osaka branch, new female recruits are “asked during interviews whether they can handle sexual harassment because it is considered part of the job”. In many cases, complaints fall on deaf ears, though demotion and removal from post entirely are also possible repercussions. For a young woman in pursuit of her career, this would be a devastating blow.
Though there may be little helplines and activists can do in specific cases, awareness of such conditions can help inform plans of action that are sensitive to and work around difficulties even while other groups work to stem such abuses of power.
Relatability to Sexual Assault Survivor Support
As mentioned in a previous section, sexual assault is a very sensitive topic both in society and for the survivors themselves. To openly address it is an act of courage that can be all too easily stifled by an unsupportive environment filled with stigma, taboo, and prevalent social norms.
If it is to effectively perform its intended purpose of being a resource for survivors and providing a safe space to heal, a public system must itself exist in an environment that does not shame women for their trauma and for wanting help in healing.
As illustrated through the above lessons and observations, it would most likely be much more difficult for victims to access care and speak out about their trauma in an environment where the anonymity provided by #WeToo is necessary. Lacking the ability to safely self-identify and to speak with others without fear of judgement or repercussions, it is near impossible for women to build the necessary support networks for healing and justice. Thus, the above lessons are not just idle observations but also actionable areas that can and should be targeted for future action.
South Korea and Japan, though similar in many ways, showed very different reactions to the arrival of the #MeToo movement. While one took in the movement and rose, the other saw a shift from individual self-identification to women gathering anonymously behind established “faces”. While both movements are powerful in their own right, it is arguably more difficult for a survivor to achieve justice for the crime done onto them and the support that they need in order to begin healing in the latter case. Thus, it is a possibly effective endeavour to compare Japan and the #WeToo movement to countries in which #MeToo has successfully gained a foothold.
Ultimately, the goal of this viral movement has been stated to be one of healing and solidarity, helping survivors to tell their story and access help with the support of a community. To this end, many advances have been made such as Shiori Ito’s recent victory after a hard-fought battle in court, copious amounts of sidelining, and vicious slander. Speaking to her supporters after the ruling, Ito said “Big changes are happening little by little. The view I am seeing right now is completely different from the one in the past.”
Indeed, despite its somewhat glacial, improvements are being made and the road forward is widening to even larger changes in the future.