Victim-blaming, suppressive instinct, and the International University of Japan as educator of "global leaders"

An alleged case of on-campus sexual assault and deeply deficient follow-up leave the International University of Japan (IUJ) looking troublingly unaware of its social responsibilities and curiously at odds with its own aspirations

On 16 July 2016, the Asahi Shimbun’s digital edition published an article about a December 2015 incident involving two students at the International University of Japan (IUJ) (English translation strictly my own):

“‘President’s E-Mail Abuse of Authority’, Say IUJ Professors, Demanding Rescindment — Niigata”

*The actual expression used in the title and article is “power harassment”, Japanglish for “abuse of authority” or “abuse of power”

Investigation has revealed that an incident involving students at the International University of Japan (IUJ), Kokusai-cho, Minamiuonuma-shi, Niigata Prefecture, occurred in December last year, and the university president sent e-mail to all students alluding to the possibility of dismissal if they spoke about it. Some IUJ professors demanded that the president rescind the e-mail, alleging that this amounted to serious abuse of authority.

According to university officials, in mid-December last year, an Afghan student in his twenties broke into the dormitory room of a female Indonesian student in her twenties. Later that month, the university set up a fact-finding committee consisting of teaching and administrative staff. The female student reportedly told the committee that she was almost forced to undress; the male student reportedly stated that he “did not recall the event well as he was drunk at the time”, and that he “was seduced”.

The president was not on the fact-finding committee, but he nevertheless interviewed the male student. An e-mail message sent to committee members and others by the president afterwards noted “extenuating circumstances” in view of the seduction allegedly involved and “his impression that it was foolish of the female student to egg the male student on”.

The female student objected, citing “the investigation’s lack of fairness and denigration of women”. Together with friends and others, she began collecting signatures demanding the male student’s expulsion and petitioned the fact-finding committee to re-investigate the incident. The committee did not do so, however, and the male student was suspended for three months. On 10 January this year, the president sent an e-mail to all students in which he announced the disciplinary measure imposed on the male student and stated that “no spreading rumors, name calling or retaliation of any kind shall be permitted” and that “anyone found to have engaged in such behavior risks immediate ejection from the university”.

The petition stopped, following the president’s e-mail. One male student who signed the petition told the Asahi Newspaper: “I was very scared. I am unhappy with the investigation that has left the facts unclear and the victim feeling blamed for the incident, but my life will be adversely affected if I cannot graduate”.

In March, several professors argued that the e-mail amounted to abuse of authority and demanded that the president rescind it. The female student is now on leave of absence and planning to withdraw from the university. “The university one-sidedly branded my conduct ‘seduction’ without proper investigation. They owe me an apology”, she said.

A lawyer acting as the university’s auditor responded in writing to the Asahi Newspaper’s request for an interview with the president. According to this reply, the e-mail in question “does not amount to abuse of authority. Rather, it was a warning issued in order to prevent further harm from being inflicted on the parties involved”. As regards the incident itself, the reply says that “the male student did not enter the room intending to commit sexual violence”, and that “the female student was unwise to act provocatively (creating the impression that she had invited him)”.

IUJ, Japan’s first all-postgraduate university, opened in 1982 with donations from industries. Almost all of its 380 students are foreign students and receive instructions in English. (Kohei Kano)

Four things that become apparent from the Asahi Shimbun article

Assuming that the article is accurate in what it reports -

1. IUJ apparently sought to blame the victim for her alleged ordeal, as shown in the president’s e-mail to the committee and the university lawyer’s written reply to the newspaper.

2. IUJ apparently intimidated its students into silence with threats of immediate expulsion, as indicated in the president’s e-mail to all students sent out on 10 January. Significantly, the IUJ lawyer’s reply does not deny the fact that the intimidation as described in the article took place. Instead, the reply simply purports to justify it on account of “prevent[ing] further harm from being inflicted on the parties” involved.

3. There is no indication that IUJ either reported the incident to the police on its own, or actively assisted the victim in deciding to do so. To be fair, it is possible that the article simply omits this particular detail.

4. IUJ’s president interfered in the work of a faculty committee set up to investigate the incident, as may be surmised from the description of his action and e-mail sent subsequently to committee members.

IUJ responds

Then, today, on 19 July, IUJ issued a communiqué on its website (here, too, English translation strictly my own):

On 16 July, the Asashi Shimbun’s morning edition for Niigata Prefecture as well as its digital edition published an article concerning our university.

Having deliberated the reported incident, the university, based without subjectivity and exclusively on elements that can be regarded as facts after an investigation, determined disciplinary measures with due regard to fairness and educational considerations, and, pursuant to that determination, final decisions were made in the name of the university president.

At the same time, throughout the process of investigating and deliberating this incident, the university’s teaching and administrative staff concerned did their utmost to safeguard a safe study and research environment for students, including the protection of the parties involved [in the incident].

The International University of Japan is resolved to ensure health in its management and the development of its educational and research environment, and to bring its teaching and administrative staff together in their endeavour to raise global leaders. We kindly request your continued support.

Three problems with IUJ’s communiqué

Even if we were to take the announcement entirely at face value - 

1. 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. This is especially so where there is no witness, as it appears to have been the case here. Removing the subjectivity of victimhood from sex crimes renders the whole 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.

It would only get worse if looking exclusively at “elements that can be regarded as facts” meant accepting objectively observable elements such as being seen drunk by others prior to the incident. Under no circumstances should drunkenness, even if true, ever be held against a victim of sexual assault as a valid reason for overlooking the absence of his or her genuine consent.

2. Ensuring “fairness” and “protection of the parties involved” can prove deeply unjust when it comes to alleged criminal conduct. At the end of the day, the only fairness and protection that is truly due to one of the parties involved in this case, i.e., the alleged offender - a fully grown adult male in his twenties pursuing a master’s degree - is due process under law, including his presumed innocence.

That, however, is a matter for law enforcement. Importantly, upholding a person’s presumed innocence does not in any way warrant shielding a criminal suspect from the reach of law. The latter has a different name, or names. It is called “cover-up” and “obstruction of justice”.

In contrast, fairness and protection for victims of alleged crimes, especially sexual assaults, mean completely different things. Active support, assistance and care are obvious examples. What is not an example of “protection”, in Japan at least, is any attempt at discouraging the victim from contacting the police. It is one thing to show understanding if the victim wishes not to contact them. It is a different matter altogether if one were to counsel a crime victim against contacting the Japanese police. Claiming to protect the victim against intrusive interrogations, potential loss of anonymity, and so on, would be misguided at best and suspicious at worst.

The point here is that IUJ should not be speaking about “fairness” and “protection of the parties involved” as if it were dealing with a fight between pupils in a schoolyard.

3. One is left wondering what paying “due regard to ... educational considerations” means in the context of this incident. Letting the alleged offender enjoy the benefit of a quiet exit - no police investigation, nor prosecution, nor appropriate punishment if convicted - cannot possibly be among the “educational considerations” that the communiqué refers to.

(It is difficult to resist the comparison between this incident at IUJ and the on-going scandal engulfing the Catholic Church where paedophile priests have been quietly re-assigned.)

Nor, I hope, does IUJ mean to suggest that “educational considerations” include showing the alleged victim how she should have behaved in the first place - don’t drink too much, don’t act provocatively, and so on, otherwise the sexual assault you may suffer will be a consequence of your own making. We live in the 21st century.

Unless I missed something, this episode seems to be signalling all kinds of misplaced “educational considerations”. Would IUJ seriously wish to show its students - tomorrow’s “global leaders” as it likes to call them - how they should hide scandals, interfere with processes of self-correction, keep law enforcement out, and suppress dissent?

Damaging material is leaking 

Much additional material has already been leaked onto Facebook and YouTube. Since I am not a journalist, I cannot prove or disprove its authenticity, or the veracity of its content for that matter. If what the material shows is true, however, it is extremely damaging for IUJ given its acts and explanations so far. It only serves to fuel concerns that the three problems I noted earlier are real.

I would urge IUJ to help dispel the uncertainties created through such material. One option would be to disclose, with appropriate redactions if necessary, the material’s authentic versions, or to disclose such other material as may be in IUJ’s possession to show that facts are in fact otherwise.

At a very minimum, IUJ should clarify its position vis-à-vis the leaked material itself. It is important to keep in mind, for our purposes here, that the point of this exercise should be about the facts alleged, not about indulging in ad hominem attacks against the leaker(s) or whistleblower(s).

Coda

In fairness, much of what I have said in this blog remains mere conjecture at this point. Unfortunately, however, I cannot say my conjecture is unreasonable, in view of the information provided through the only two publicly available sources, namely the Asahi Shimbun article and IUJ’s communiqué.

This also shows why the latter is so deficient. A more honest, open, expeditious, diligent and, above all, professional response would have been so much more effective, making none of this really necessary.

The supreme irony is that IUJ is home to one of Asia’s best MBA programs. Professor Kimio Kase, IUJ’s President, is on the business school’s faculty where he teaches corporate strategy.

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.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.