From obscurity to obfuscation - the International University of Japan (IUJ)'s troublesome handling of an alleged on-campus sexual assault

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On 19 December 2015, at around 4:00 a.m., an Indonesian student studying at the International University of Japan (IUJ) was allegedly sexually assaulted in her own campus dormitory room by an Afghan student.

Since then, IUJ leadership has dealt with the incident, treated the parties involved, conducted itself before the university’s student and alumni communities and, indeed, managed the entire episode, very poorly. This remains so, despite the two public statements issued on the university’s website so far, as well as a series of Facebook posts by IUJ officials, following a newspaper article exposing the affair and growing expressions of concern.

IUJ’s inability to dispel suspicions of victim-blaming, heavy-handedness and cover-up is a worrying sign for an institution operating with global ambitions in the 21st century.

One newspaper article, two public statements, three mysteries

My interest in last year’s incident was aroused when, on 16 July this year, the Asahi Newspaper article reported a move by several IUJ professors to demand that the university’s president, Professor Kimio Kase, rescind his e-mail on account of abuse of authority. According to the article, he e-mailed all IUJ students forbidding them from any kind of “spreading rumors, name calling or retaliation” and threatening offenders - or perhaps warning them, depending on one’s perspective - with the possibility of immediate expulsion.

The newspaper article, which was written in Japanese, appeared on the newspaper’s on-line version as well as in printed form distributed in the region where IUJ is located. A number of alumni were already exchanging their views when, in my strictly personal capacity, I translated the article into English for the benefit of those otherwise unable to acquaint themselves with its content.

IUJ posted its first public statement, in Japanese only at first, on 19 July. Its unofficial English version followed the next day. I offered my thoughts on these elsewhere (in English and Japanese). In my view, the newspaper article makes a prima facie case that:

  • IUJ sought to blame the victim for her alleged ordeal
  • IUJ intimidated its students into silence with threats of immediate expulsion
  • IUJ did not report the incident to the police on its own, or actively assist the victim in deciding to do so
  • IUJ’s president interfered in the work of a faculty committee set up to investigate the incident

I also felt that, to these, the university’s communiqué added three problems:

  • If we treat claims of sexual assault “without subjectivity and exclusively on elements that can be regarded as facts”, we are bound to engage in victim-blaming
  • Ensuring “fairness” and “protection of the parties involved” can prove deeply unjust when it comes to alleged criminal conduct
  • One is left wondering what paying “due regard ... to educational considerations” means in the context of this incident

The question for me, then, was whether IUJ’s more detailed announcement issued on 20 July (see its official Japanese version and unofficial English version) shed any useful light. The short answer, I regret to say, is no.

Before proceeding further, however, I do wish to express appreciation of the newly found spirit of openness and willingness to engage on the part of IUJ’s administration. While it would have been more helpful - and, frankly, only prudent - if the university had adopted that spirit from the very beginning, it is (almost) never too late to try to come clean.

Mystery 1 Subjective elements: did the investigation consider them and, if so, how exactly did it consider them? If not, why not?

The official Japanese version of IUJ’s 16 July statement notes that the university based its findings without subjectivity. In fact, an even more literal translation of the passage would be “excluding subjective elements”.

Surprisingly, the unofficial English version of the same statement published on 20 July says the exact opposite (emphasis mine):

After deliberating on this matter based only on the information that can be acknowledged as fact from the available and subjective elements, and while emphasizing fairness and educational considerations, we have finalized our decision under the president’s name.

My initial concern had been that excluding the subjectivity of victimhood from sex crimes would render the whole investigative process effectively futile. Oddly, the male student’s allegation that the female student “seduced” him, an eminently subjective claim in my view, appears to have mattered very much.

Now, if, as IUJ’s more recent announcement suggests, subjective elements were in fact considered, how seriously did the committee take the female student’s version of the incident? This we may never know. Citing privacy and university regulations, IUJ has refused to disclose the committee’s deliberations as well as the material used therein.

For now, we are left with two totally contradictory descriptions of one of the key evidentiary criteria used in the investigation. We cannot even be sure as to whether the committee had any pre-established evidentiary criteria at all or followed them. This, in turn, makes it difficult to invest much confidence in the committee’s factual findings.

The situation has not been helped by IUJ’s second announcement. It does not discuss this matter at all.

So, the following questions remain:

  • Did the investigation exclude subjective elements, as stated in the Japanese version of IUJ’s first announcement, or did it account for such elements, as stated in the same announcement’s English version?
  • How did the committee really approach the subjective accounts given by the alleged victim and alleged offender, and how did their treatment affect the committee’s final findings?

Mystery 2 IUJ president’s e-mails: did he send them, who did he send them to, and exactly what did he say in them?

According to the newspaper article, the president was not a member of the investigative committee. Should this be the case, his e-mail messages sent in connection with this incident would not strictly form part of the committee’s privileged material.

The Asahi Newspaper article mentions two messages.

The first is an e-mail reportedly sent by the president to committee members and others while the committee was still investigating the incident. In it, the president is said to have noted “extenuating circumstances” in view of the seduction involved, and his impression that “it was foolish of the female student to egg the male student on”. If true, this e-mail portrays the president unflatteringly as someone with an antiquated understanding of sexual violence.

The article also alleges that the president gathered the relevant information and interviewed the male student himself. How would IUJ explain its own chief executive arguably engaging in a parallel fact-finding activity and attempting to influence faculty committee proceedings? Neither matter is addressed in IUJ’s more recent statement.

The other e-mail message was allegedly sent on 10 January. IUJ’s initial statement does not discuss the matter. The 20 July communiqué does, albeit indirectly (emphasis mine):

... And to avoid any misunderstanding about the facts and prevent the feeling of insecurity, the university took measures to stop the spread of unnecessary slander and rumors.

Ensuring to this matter, the following occurred: the ... destruction of the university’s property by violent acts, the use of unauthorized use [sic] of the student representatives’ e-mail account, and the dissemination of information which affected the privacy of the persons concerned. The university warned, based on the relevant rules, against these excessive acts by using the wording such as “could face immediate expulsion” in the understanding that “expulsion,” “suspension” and “reprimand” may be within the range of punishment to be imposed.

There is a discrepancy about the kinds of behavior the e-mail supposedly warned against. According to the newspaper article, the warning said “no spreading of rumors, name calling or retaliation of any kind shall be permitted”. The boxed excerpt creates the impression that the scope of this warning was significantly narrower - i.e., slanders and rumors that are unnecessary, as well as excessive acts, including property destruction, unauthorized use of e-mail accounts and dissemination of personal information about those involved.

The Asahi article only mentions risks of “immediate ejection”. In fact, IUJ’s statement does not contradict this. What the latter says, rather, is that reference to the possibility of immediate expulsion alone was somehow “understood” as reference to the possibility not only of expulsion but also of lesser consequences such as suspension or reprimand.

In the announcement’s Japanese version, IUJ also suggests that the warning was issued pursuant to university by-laws providing for disciplinary measures. No such suggestion appears in the English version.

It is, of course, possible that the warning’s issuer - the communiqué does not identify who it was - might have understood that “immediate expulsion” meant “measures up to, and including, immediate expulsion”. This person may even have expected that the recipient(s) of his or her warning would share such an elastic understanding.

The Asahi Newspaper article shows this version of the event to be highly unlikely. It reports IUJ students discontinuing signature-collecting campaigns demanding the investigation’s re-opening and the male student’s expulsion as a direct consequence of the 10 January e-mail. Such behavior, if true, does not indicate belief regarding the prohibited activities, or the severity of disciplinary punishment, that is consistent with the university’s explanations.

Warnings are notoriously prone to misunderstandings. It would have been grossly naïve of IUJ’s administration to expect that distressed and anxious students would calmly read through the message, consult the school’s regulations, and correctly “understand” that “risks of immediate expulsion” in fact means risks of a “range of punishment(s)” from reprimand to suspension to immediate expulsion.

Rather than clarifying the situation, IUJ’s 20 July announcement makes it deeply uncertain. I ask:

  • Did IUJ’s president send e-mail to committee members and others regarding his own appreciation of the evidence and the merits of the case? Did he gather information on his own and send the e-mail in question while the committee was still investigating the matter?
  • Did the president send an e-mail message on 10 January? What behavior did he warn its recipients against, specifically? What possible consequence or consequences did he mention? Did he cite specific provisions of the university regulations when he mentioned them? Did he honestly expect the recipients of his message to share IUJ’s supposed understanding that “immediate expulsion” meant “reprimand” and “suspension” as well?

Mystery 3 Police - what did IUJ do each time it acted “in cooperation with the police”?

Neither the Asahi Newspaper article, nor IUJ’s first statement, refer to law enforcement. This curious omission led me to suspect that IUJ might have sought to avoid police involvement and the adverse publicity that would surely follow it.

In its most recent public statement, IUJ mentions its “cooperation with the police” four times and the possibility of “a criminal case” once. That, I must admit, strikes me as a dramatic increase from zero.

What also strikes me is the utter lack of detail about the content of IUJ-police cooperation.

One instance of such cooperation is given more substance. Unfortunately, however, it is not about the instance that really matters here. IUJ’s second announcement states (emphasis mine):

[S]ince early January, emotional conflicts evidently existed between the friends of [the parties involved in the incident], which resulted ... in a student ... destroying University property demonstrating violent behavior. In this regard, IUJ carried out the required reporting, such as submitting a damage report to the police authorities.

This, as far as we can see from the explanations, is the only time something was specifically reported to the police.

At no other point in its 20 July announcement does IUJ ever disclose any specific information about its “cooperation with the police”.

There are a number of simple factual questions to which IUJ can respond with simple answers. They include:

  • When did IUJ first come into contact with the police regarding the alleged sexual assault? What were the circumstances of this encounter? Did IUJ initiate it, or did the police initiate it? Who represented IUJ at various stages of its “cooperation” with the police? Which police unit acted as IUJ’s counterpart at various stages of this “cooperation”?
  • At any point during this episode, did IUJ in fact report the incident to the police at all? Did IUJ file any written report, as it did with the property damage, with the police? If it did, when did it do so? What did IUJ include in its report? If it did not file such a report, why not? More importantly, if IUJ did not in fact report the incident to the police itself, what did its “cooperation” with the police actually entail? Did IUJ seek specific advice from the police regarding any aspect of the matter? If so, what specific advice did IUJ seek from the police? Did IUJ in any way attempt, or consider attempting, to exert influence on the police in any way? If so, what kind of influence did it attempt or consider attempting, specifically?
  • Did IUJ update the police on the progress of its investigation, the disciplinary measures considered or taken, or the treatment of the parties involved? If it did, what specific information did IUJ share with the police? Did IUJ share any part of the investigative material gathered, or any part of its evaluation, or any part of its findings, recommendations and decisions, with the police? Did IUJ seek any assistance from the police in connection of any of these parts? If not, why not?
  • Did IUJ encourage the victim to contact the police? If it did, on what specific matters did IUJ encourage her to contact the police? Did IUJ encourage her to file a criminal complaint with the police? Did IUJ offer to assist her in attenuating the sense of fear, stress, anxiety, burden, shame, and other hardships likely to accompany police investigations, with a view to enabling her to file a criminal complaint with the police? Did IUJ discourage the victim from contacting the police? If it did, on what specific matters did IUJ discourage her from contacting the police, and why? Did IUJ discourage her from filing a criminal complaint with the police? If it did, for what specific reasons did IUJ do so? Did IUJ offer her any incentive with a view to discouraging her from filing a criminal report with the police? If so, what specific incentive did IUJ offer her?
  • Did IUJ look favorably upon the possibility of a police investigation of the incident? If so, for what reasons? Did IUJ look unfavorably upon such a possibility? If so, for what reasons? Did such considerations affect IUJ’s approach to the police in any way?

Absent any information on any of these questions, one might be forgiven for suspecting that IUJ wanted to avoid, or in any event minimize, the involvement of law enforcement authorities in connection with the alleged sexual assault. The following passage, found near the very end of IUJ’s latest announcement, painfully reveals its attitude:

We at the university think that there is a possibility that this matter [the Indonesian student’s experience] may constitute a criminal case, but are not aware at this moment whether the incident was reported to the police.

The ball is back in IUJ’s court

Another novel feature of IUJ’s 20 July statement is its frequent references to regulations and procedures indeed. And yet, we do not know what any of these provisions actually says. We do not even know which of the various acts and measures described in the communiqué were obligatory or discretionary, permitted or forbidden. We are told that IUJ’s conduct is governed by established rules, but such assurances sound hollow as we have no way of knowing whether it is true or not.

It is perhaps this opacity that has been most harmful to IUJ so far. It has fuelled speculations, invited warranted as well as unwarranted accusations, and triggered a public relations nightmare.

In one week, IUJ’s public response has transformed itself from a veritable wall of silence to a trickle of bland declarations to a torrent of information. Genuine insight still eludes us, however, and the more the university speaks, the less clear key matters become. Somehow, each of IUJ’s announcements feels reluctant. It reads as though the university desperately wants it to be the last one on the matter, hoping that the reader will shut up and move on.

Things do not have to be this way. If IUJ wants to become one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning - where zero tolerance is an established policy, students are taken seriously and governance is transparent - , all it needs to do is act like one.

Disclosure

I taught public international law, international humanitarian law/international criminal law, and the international law on recourse to force, as visiting professor at IUJ from 2005 until 2015. IUJ declined to engage me for the 2015–2016 academic year, an offer I would have been unable to accept in any case for overriding family obligations.

I do not know any of the parties involved in the incident itself, nor any of the university officials involved in the wider episode (at least to the best of my knowledge). As a former visiting faculty member, I am now simply a very concerned third party.