Ayako Kano on #MeToo Movement in East Asia

Dr. Ayako Kano is Professor of Japanese Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Graduate Groups in Comparative Literature and in History, and a core faculty member of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She earned her B.A. in English Literature from Keio University, Japan, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.  Her research focuses on the intersection of gender, performance, and politics. She is the author of Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, and Nationalism (Palgrave, 2001) and Japanese Feminist Debates: A Century of Contention on Sex, Love, and Labor (Hawaii, 2016). She also co-edited Rethinking Japanese Feminisms (Hawaii, 2018) with Julia Bullock and James Welker.

Sabrina Hartono CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Ayako Kano on October 2, 2018. 

The #MeToo movement has spread from the U.S. to the rest of the world, including East Asia. What are some of the notable features of the #MeToo movement in East Asia?

The #MeToo movement, when you view it really up-close, may look like one huge mountain peak, but when you have a bit of a distance, you see it is part of a big mountain range. Sexual harassment is not new. People raising their voices about it is also not new. For example, attention to sexual harassment (sekuhara) came to Japan in the 1980s and the Japanese feminist movement has been doing a lot of work on that issue, at least since the 1980s and 1990s.

Regarding the #MeToo movement that started in 2017, we should not overstate the difference between the movements in East Asia and in the U.S. I’ve been thinking instead about the differences between #MeToo and earlier cases against sexual harassment. One difference is the very public nature of how some survivors now speak openly rather than anonymously about their experiences. There are a few examples of this in East Asia: There is a recent case involving  Japanese journalist Shiori Ito. She went public and was willing to have her face shown on TV. That was very courageous of her, but she has also been viciously attacked for it. The negative consequences of stepping forward publicly is notable in Japan, while this has been under-reported in the U.S. I am sure there are negative consequences about the loss of privacy and receiving hate mail and threats to personal safety. Certainly if you look at the way that these cases are reported in the media, in East Asia women are more likely to come forward with their stories anonymously rather than publicly.


What do you think are the significant differences between the treatment of sexual harassment in Asia as compared to its treatment in the West? What are the causes of these differences?

Again, I don’t necessarily see it as a difference between Asia and the West, but there are certain qualities that are striking when you look at the reports on East Asia. My sense is that there is a lot of victim blaming. This is existent in the U.S. too, but I am seeing a shift away from victim blaming in the last couple of decades. There has definitely been a change in the U.S. side and that has not has happened as much in East Asia.  That’s my own sense and students from East Asia corroborate this perception.

One of the causes may be that people are still reluctant to acknowledge female sexuality and sexual desire. (Hence a woman who finds herself in a sexual situation outside of marriage is assumed to be outside the bounds of normal behavior.) Every time there is an incident of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct or violence, the blame is put on the woman because she is seen as having created a situation where that could happen. Also, some of the recent cases, both in the U.S. and East Asia, have involved women who are in creative and self-directed fields, like journalism, academia, acting and artistic modeling. This implies that women have been entering into fields where they have more choice over where to go, who they meet, whether they will drink. And because they are perceived as having a choice, they are blamed for creating the situation in which they are the target of sexual abuse. When compared with nineteenth-century women working in factories or in offices, women are now perceived to have more control.  There is a perception that women have chosen to go out to drink after work. And in many parts of East Asia, drinking after hours is part of the work culture. There is a very prominent Japanese case of a female journalist who went drinking with a government official in the finance ministry because she needed to interview him, which is standard practice for journalists in Japan. He was her source so she went out to dinner and had drinks with him, and he repeated vulgar sexual comments throughout the interaction. In this kind of situation, from one perspective it is  a gray area; but from another perspective, it’s a sign of women moving into professions where they can be perceived to have more choice. Therefore they receive more blame when they do become victims of sexual harassment. (To clarify: I’m not condoning the official’s behavior; I am explaining why victim blaming may be currently more prevalent in a place like Japan, where women are still in the minority in these professions, and old behavioral norms persist.)

On April 28th 2018, around 300 protesters rallied in Shinjuku station in Tokyo to speak out against sexual harassment and victim-blaming. What do you think is the best way of increasing awareness and promoting feminism issues and ideas in Asia?

A lot of things come to mind, much needs to happen. In Japan, for example, there is an equal employment opportunity law that bans sexual harassment in the workplace. But this law does not cover situations outside employer-employee relationships, like the case of the journalist going out drinking with the government official. There’s no law against sexual-harassment per se, but important ground is covered by the employment law. Other countries in East Asia have laws explicitly forbidding sexual harassment.

Even if you have legal provisions, statutes of limitation are another matter. In Japan, it is very short—only three years—and often when you are a victim of sexual harassment or violence or misconduct, it takes time to recover enough to bring forth a complaint, so the shortness of the window is a problem.

Just as important is increasing the number of women in positions of leadership, in politics, the police force and in legal professions. And changing people’s mindset are probably the most important. But it is a challenging thing to do. I have two teenage sons, so this is something that is very close to home for me. How do we as parents teach our children, our sons? How do we teach that one cannot get away with bad behavior? I may sound old-fashioned in saying this, but I do feel a personal responsibility towards the next generation as well.


#MeToo in Asia seems to have sprung from grassroots movements after reading posts on social media from Western countries and people finally voicing their own concerns. How much do you think social media plays a role in initiating and supporting such gender-equality and feminist movements? What about particularly in Asia, where the concept of "freedom of speech" is more limited than in the West?

Your question applies perhaps most to the People’s Republic of China, where social media can serve functions that mainstream media platforms cannot. I do not think freedom of speech is generally more limited in Asia than in the West. The laws about what constitutes free speech, what constitutes libel, defamation, and so on, are very complicated in each country. Therefore it’s not fair to say that in general, there is more freedom of speech in the West than in Asia.

I do have a sense that in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, mainstream media also is reporting about these issues quite a bit. Social media can also play a huge role, especially in allowing individuals to express their experiences anonymously. Having these expressions aggregated online, allowing people to see others’ experiences and having their feelings shared and validated helps the movement forward. My understanding is that in Singapore, there’s a website where people can report harassment, and it has become a bit of a double edged sword because it can be used as a sort of social surveillance mechanism as well as a reporting mechanism. This website, like social media in general, can be a force for good; but it can also be a terrible way of policing and attacking individuals as well.


How has feminism in Japan evolved since the early 19th century? Do you think there are similar patterns in other parts of East Asia, like in South Korea or China?

There are several good books on this topic and I myself have written a book recently that traces and covers one hundred years of feminist debates in Japan. What I stress is not so much the “evolution” of feminism, but the fact that feminists have not always taken a unified stance on difficult issues, such as prostitution, reproductive rights, support for mothers, equality in the workplace. We might expect from a twenty-first-century standpoint that feminists have always agreed on these issues, but they haven’t.

At a very high level of generalization, we can talk about similar patterns in which feminism often had close relationships with nationalism, especially during moments of national crisis. Whether during wars, economic crises, or international diplomatic crises, there is a very general pattern. Feminism and capitalism have had a very complex relation in modern East Asia—sometimes feminist and capitalists interests coincide, sometimes they contradict. Each nation has its own history, and feminism has its own complexities within each nation. (This is why a volume I recently co-edited is titled Rethinking Japanese Feminisms, using the plural term.)


Despite East Asia’s rapid economic progress, the region lags significantly behind the West in terms of the empowerment of women, especially in politics and business. Do you think that Asia's patriarchal culture is something that can be undone anytime soon? What do you think can be done to break down such traditional views and promote more progressive views of female empowerment?

What does the “empowerment of women in politics and business” really mean? Do you think in the U.S. we have achieved empowerment and equality for women? Taiwan has been led by a woman; South Korea has been led by a woman. The U.S. has not yet had a female president.

Female empowerment needs to be defined very carefully. The U.S. does not have a federally mandated maternity leave policy, or national child care system. There’s no national health insurance system. That seems very disempowering, it’s terribly detrimental to many women. We need to be very careful about describing the problem, and then pointing to causes and solutions.

In a lot of countries, like South Korea and Taiwan and Japan, there are laws that mandate gender equality. In contrast, the U.S. Constitution does not have a gender equality clause.

If you contrast the existence of gender equality laws in East Asia with percentages of women in leadership positions in government and industries, you’re right to wonder why there are fewer women in these positions, but the answers will be very specific.  They depend on the place and on the particular historical moment of the country.

In the case of Japan for example, what is holding back women from the workplace is high expectations for mothers, as well as for workers. Even if you have laws for equality in the workplace and low-cost, high-quality daycare centers available, if the definition of a full-time worker is that you stay at your workplace until eight, nine, or even ten o’clock at night to finish your job, that will not be good for the family or for anyone who wants to have a family. Likewise, if the expectations for mothers are extremely high, that makes it hard to be a career-oriented full-time worker without being made to feel like a bad mother. The policies that address more childcare facilities can help women, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The real problem is the equally-high levels of expectations towards mothers and workers. I don’t necessarily see that as a traditional mindset; it’s more specifically a twenty-first century mindset that has developed over a couple of decades in Japan.  

I do think we need to be specific in defining where the problems are. The hindrance to promoting female politicians might be different, for example. In other words, it may have to do with the way elections are held, how politicians are expected to get votes, etc.



  1. What kind of impact do you think the #MeToo movement will have on the empowerment of women and behavioral norms toward women in East Asia?


Let’s end on a more positive note. As many of my students and observers of East Asia have expressed, we want to be optimistic that the #MeToo movement will change things. But since it could also be a passing phase, we need top-down legal systematic change, as well as bottom-up pressure, including from social media, to create grassroots movements. Ideally, that is how social change happens.

Sabrina Hartono CMC '21Student Journalist

By Yoshi [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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