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One wintry Thursday morning nearly six years ago, Shoko Arai made her way into a meeting with the mayor of Kusatsu, a small Japanese mountain town north west of Tokyo, famed for its hot spring onsen bathing.

At the time, she was the only female member on Kusatsu’s town assembly, an impressive feat in Japan’s long male-dominated political landscape, especially in conservative rural enclaves.

That morning however – January 8, 2015, a date etched into Ms Arai’s memory – everything changed. In the words of Ms Arai, the 73-year-old mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa allegedly “forced” her into “sexual relations,” claiming that he “suddenly pulled me closer, kissed me and pushed [me] down on the floor” and adding that she “couldn’t push him back”.

The mayor has denied all allegations – but for Ms Arai, the ordeal was apparently only just beginning. This week – following a protracted period of very public accusations, denials, counter-claims, social media backlashes, political maneouvring and even a stint overseas, fearing for the safety of her family – came the latest twist.

Ms Arai, 51, was voted out of office by residents of Kusatsu in a carefully orchestrated recall election, after her all-male colleagues argued that she had damaged the town’s reputation with her “scandalous” allegations.

Her ousting marks not only the climax of a high-profile scandal – but also puts Japan’s dubious gender equality record under the spotlight, underscoring the stigmas and challenges facing many women who come forward to report allegations of sexual assault.

The extent of the problem of under-reported sex-related crimes among women in Japan was hinted at in a government survey in 2017, which found that only 4 per cent of rapes were reported to police.

Meanwhile, Japan continues to languish at the bottom among G7 countries in terms of its representation of women in both politics and businesses; and only 46 out of Japan’s 465 lower house politicians (less than 10 per cent compared with a 24 per cent global average) were women as of October this year.

Japan’s stubborn gender disparity no doubt has a direct correlation with the nation’s notably slow uptake of the MeToo campaign, with Ms Arai’s experiences taking place against an incongruous backdrop of global power structures being shaken up elsewhere.

Even suicide figures correlate with Japan’s deep-rooted gender inequality in the workplace, with rates soaring among young women since the start of the pandemic, fuelled by factors including greater economic vulnerability and heavier domestic burdens than their male counterparts.

Referring to Ms Arai’s situation, Chelsea Szendi Schieder, an associate professor of economics and gender studies expert at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, says: “Her experience of becoming a target for rage upon coming forward with her testimony about suffering sexual violence is not unusual nor surprising.”

She adds: “To me, this case demonstrates the ongoing necessity to actually implement quotas to get more women in politics and leadership positions. It is deeply disturbing that the other, all-male city assembly members ganged up on one individual woman as creating “trouble” rather than investigating what may actually be a much more serious trouble: sexual assault by a very powerful man in the community.”

Ms Arai first made her allegations against the mayor public in an e-book she released in November last year, explaining that she had felt too afraid to step forward with her claims before then.

The revelations led to a motion to fire the mayor, which failed – before Ms Arai was expelled from the assembly a month later, a decision that was later reversed by the prefecture before she was reinstated as town councilor.

But the mayor filed a defamation complaint with the police, and the campaign to oust her continued. A group of 19 residents, led by council chairman Takashi Kuroiwa, sent a dismissal request to the council of the town, which has a population of around 6,200 – resulting in this week’s referendum among residents and her unseating.

Declaring the vote as “unjust and unreasonable”, Ms Arai immediately vowed to continue with her political activities, saying: “There is no reason for dismissing me. A recall spearheaded by influential figures in the town, such as the mayor and assembly members, runs counter to the philosophy of the recall system.”

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