“Buried voices” get the attention they deserve, and bring about positive change.
As March 11 approaches, people around Japan are now reflecting on the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on this day ten years ago, and remembering all the thousands of lives that were forever affected by the disaster.
Last night, Japan’s national television broadcaster NHK shone a light on some of the victims by rebroadcasting a documentary from last year, entitled “Buried Voices 25 Years of Truth-Sexual Violence in the Event of a Disaster-“.
The 45-minute documentary featured interviews with supporters who have been working hard to eradicate sexual violence in Japan, not only after the 2011 earthquake but following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that devastated the Kobe area in 1995.
Sexual violence in the wake of disasters has been widely documented around the world, but here in Japan, the issue has been largely overlooked, with Japan’s first full-scale survey into the issue only conducted after the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The survey outlined 82 individual incidents of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and unwanted sexual contact. Many of the victims were single, separated, divorced or widowed women, with a number of cases involving quid pro quo types of assault, where individuals were exploited for sex in return for resources like food and shelter.
Yorisoi Hotline was set up in March 2012 as a free 24-hour women’s-only phone consultation service to help locals with any problems following the disaster. Out of over 360,000 calls received from 2013 to 2018, more than half the consultations were found to be related to sexual violence in the three badly affected areas of Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures.
Shocking testimonies from victims included (trigger warning, graphic testimonies):
“A man in temporary housing gradually went crazy and caught a woman and stripped her naked in a dark place. The people around didn’t help her and pretended not to see it, saying, “It can’t be helped because they’re young.” (Woman in her 20s)
“The head of the evacuation centre said, ‘It must be hard for you (after losing your husband). I’ll give you towels and food, so come and get them from me at night.’ When I went to get them, he blatantly forced me to have sex with him.” (Woman who lost her husband in the earthquake)
While the testimonies in the documentary were deeply disturbing, it was important for these “buried voices” to be heard, as it brought attention to the issue and sparked a much-needed conversation about the problem online.
Comments from viewers included:
“I couldn’t stop crying while watching this. It’s hell for women.”
“Shocked to hear so many accounts where the leader of the shelter was the main culprit.”
“This is so nauseatingly shocking…I can’t find the words for it.”
“Attacking a weakened individual after a disaster is dehumanising.”
“There’s a discourse that Japanese people are polite in the event of a disaster, but behind the scenes, incidents like this occur.”
“It’s not just the natural disaster people have to deal with, it’s secondary damage such as sexual violence. Everyone needs to be aware of this.”
“They need to amp up installation of cameras around evacuation shelters and temporary housing.”
The findings of the 2011 survey, led by respected social worker Professor Mieko Yoshihama from the University of Michigan, did lead to the improvement of consultation services, evacuation shelters, and a review of national disaster countermeasures in Japan.
However, it’s the brave women who spoke out about the violence, and let their buried voices be heard, who were the real instigators for change. Let’s not forget them nor the work that still needs to be done to protect women in Japan as we remember the tragic events of 2011 on March 11.