Foreign trainees in Japan face sexual harassment and abuse

"The president of my company asked me in Japanese if I would swallow his sperm. I didn't understand what he meant. But when I got home, I looked up the word in my dictionary. I felt sad and humiliated."

That, says one 30-year-old Vietnamese woman, is when her traineeship in Japan began to fall apart. She spoke to NHK on the condition of anonymity.

The woman came to the country in the summer of 2018 and began to work for a construction company. She had been told that her job would involve inspecting products. Instead, she was assigned to actually assemble steel bars at construction sites. But that wasn't the worst of it. Most of her colleagues were men, and the sexual harassment began almost immediately. Her supervisors, and even the president of the company, would touch her inappropriately and force her to watch pornography.

In the spring of 2019, around eight months after she started her traineeship, a male employee groped her buttocks while on duty. She grabbed a nearby steel pipe and threw it at him. She was fired that day.

"I tried to explain to the bosses why I threw the pipe, but no-one would listen," she says.

The firm filed a report with the organization that arranged her placement, stating that she "doesn't follow instructions of her supervisors and repeats problematic behavior at the workplace." With more than two years left in her term as a trainee, she was suspended from the program and told to return to Vietnam.

A Vietnamese woman
A 30-year-old Vietnamese woman spoke to NHK about the sexual harassment she was subjected to while working in Japan as a technical trainee.

The president of the firm told NHK that he didn't believe his actions constituted sexual harassment.

"I may have said and done things that could be taken as obscene, but they were meant as jokes," he says. "I have never received any complaints, either from her or any other employee, with regard to sexual harassment. I believe she fabricated a story that was convenient for her."

Just the tip of the iceberg

Kakehashi is a support group for foreigners living in Japan. Spokesperson Koshida Maiko says more than 100 technical trainees have reached out to her seeking advice since 2015. About 10 percent of the calls concern sexual violence and harassment. Koshida says she believes this number is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Those who come forward and seek help are the lucky ones," she says. "Most of the trainees are unable to recognize that they are being subjected to sexual violence. They blame themselves instead."

Koshida asked the Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT) to conduct an investigation into sexual violence against foreign trainees. The organization is in charge of ensuring the proper implementation of technical intern training and protecting the trainees. She says she has yet to hear back.

"OTIT will respond to our requests for consultation about job descriptions and wages, but ignore our requests concerning sexual violence against trainees," Koshida says.

Sunai Naoko, a journalist who reports on issues involving technical trainees, says sexual violence of this nature is an intractable problem because of the unusual power structure of the programs.

"Many of the trainees live in dormitories provided by their companies, which means their accommodation is also under the control of their employers," she says. "The proximity of job and lodging enhances the risk of their being subjected to sexual violence even outside of work. Furthermore, trainees can easily lose not just their jobs but their housing too if they file complaints and offend their employers. And losing a job can mean losing residence status. So it's extremely difficult to speak out."

The woman returned to Vietnam in October 2019. She is now working for a firm in her hometown, earning around $220 a month — less than half what she made as a trainee in Japan. She still has nearly $5,500 left of the loans she took out to set herself up in Japan.

"I wanted to continue working in Japan, and I think I would be if I hadn't been sexually abused," she says. "But I was a foreigner and a woman, and that's a precarious position that people took advantage of."