TOKYO: Female journalists in Japan said Tuesday they were teaming up to fight sexual harassment in the media, believed to be widespread in a country where the #MeToo movement has been slow to take off.
A total of 86 women journalists have come together to form the Women in Media Network Japan (WiMN) to expose harassment and abuse, said Yoshiko Hayashi, a freelancer who formerly worked at the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun.
"Unfortunately, discrimination against women and sexual harassment still exist among the people and entities we cover," she said, reading a statement from the group on its establishment.
"Many women in journalism felt it difficult to raise their voice out of embarrassment and fears that it would destroy the relationship with their contacts," she added.
"We were the people whose voices were unheard."
The issue hit the headlines recently after the finance ministry admitted its top bureaucrat harassed a female reporter in an incident believed to be the tip of iceberg.
The reporter, with Japan's TV Asahi, blew the whistle and Hayashi said the group had been encouraged by her refusal to suffer in silence.
"We are resolved that now is the time to eradicate sexual harassment and any other human rights infringement," Hayashi said.
The ministry came under fire for its handling of the allegations against Junichi Fukuda, who stepped down over the reporter's claim but continues to deny wrongdoing.
His retirement package was eventually reduced as a punishment, but when reports of Fukuda's alleged misconduct first emerged in a weekly magazine, Finance Minister Taro Aso appeared to dismiss them, saying he had discussed the issue with his top bureaucrat and had no plans to investigate.
An uproar over the claims ensued, and the ministry was forced to backtrack, though it earned additional criticism for calling on affected women to come forward to its lawyers.
TV Asahi, one of the nation's major networks, publicly acknowledged one of its reporters was the victim and that her boss had failed to act when she initially complained about the harassment.
Aso has voiced his concern over "Fukuda's human rights" in the midst of accusations and said there is no such criminal charge as sexual harassment.
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He has also said that the bureaucrat fell victim to a 'honey trap' by the female reporter though he later retracted the remark.
The scandal and the ministry's perceived mishandling of the allegations have provoked a public outcry leading some to suggest the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment was finally impacting Japan.
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It has also provided an additional headache for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government is already under fire over two cronyism scandals, one of which involves the scrubbing of documents by the finance ministry.
Abe has made increasing female participation in the workforce a key plank of his economic policies, as Japan struggles with a labour shortage.
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Japan ranked bottom among G7 countries in the World Economic Forum's latest "Global Gender Gap Report", coming 114th worldwide.
It scored poorly on women's participation in the economy and political involvement