Japanese woman under siege after harassment case

'HOW WOULD you like to be raped and then have your picture taken and circulated all around the town?' asked the anonymous caller late at night. Then the telephone went dead.

Kazuko Kitaguchi has been receiving a lot of calls like this recently. The 33-year-old member of the Prefectural Assembly in Kumamoto, on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu, says her life has become a misery. 'I no longer dare to go out at night. The house is surrounded by searchlights and video cameras.'

When she goes to her office, right-wingers arrive with their loudspeakers and denounce her as an embarrassment to Kumamoto. And the reason for this systematic intimidation appears to be that she dared to take another politician to court last December on charges of sexual harassment.

At the time, the press took great interest in her case. After another sexual harassment court case in April, also in Kyushu, Japanese women's groups began to think they had reached a watershed in their long struggle to expose widespread sexual harassment throughout the country.

And with the number of sexual harassment suits against US subsidiaries of Japanese companies rising, one company even brought out a video to show how Japanese men should behave to avoid charges of sexual harassment.

But old habits die hard, and hardest of all on the island of Kyushu, whose men have a reputation for chauvinism throughout Japan.

Ms Kitaguchi was elected to Kumamoto's Assembly 18 months ago, and her main campaign issue was women's rights. The first signs of trouble appeared even before she was elected: her campaign posters were slashed on the streets, and she got a series of insulting phone calls, all deriding her as a woman trying to get involved in the 'man's world' of politics.

Things got worse, not better, once she had been elected. And then, on the night of 20 June last year, Ms Kitaguchi attended a dinner with other local politicians, including a senior member of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Mitsunori Baba.

After the dinner, she says, she bowed to Mr Baba in the corridor as a mark of respect. He responded by slamming his forearm across her breasts. She screamed, and several of the other guests tried to restrain him. But Mr Baba then lunged out, grabbed her right breast and twisted it, leaving bruise marks from his fingers. 'This is what you women deserve,' he said.

Ms Kitaguchi was shocked. Having waited in vain for an apology from Mr Baba, she finally took him to court. Mr Baba tried to defend his actions saying he had just reached out to feel the material of her kimono - except Ms Kitaguchi was not wearing a kimono, but a Western-style dress.

The prosecutor's office found that Mr Baba's action constituted an act of violence, but said it was done under the influence of alcohol, and refused to press charges. (Mr Baba's office refused to comment on the case when contacted by the Independent this week).

Outraged, Ms Kitaguchi called on the local Assembly to establish a hotline for women suffering sexual harassment. The Assembly - largely male - responded by reprimanding her for bringing up the subject in allegedly 'insulting words'. And then the threatening phone calls started.

Ms Kitaguchi has now got in touch with a Tokyo-based women's group to try to attract some publicity to her plight. 'It is not just my problem, it is happening to Japanese women all over the place,' she says.

Meanwhile, she now spends most of her time at home, barely going out even in daylight - a harsh price to pay for the sin of speaking out. 'My future? I feel like a child beaten by other children who does not want to go back to school,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)