A case involving a graduate student and her art history professor illustrates the tangled state of sexual power dynamics in Japan.
The prominent art history professor and his student had finished dinner and were strolling along the river in Kyoto, Japan’s picturesque former capital, when they stopped at a bar.
For months, they had been spending a lot of time together, and the professor had already kissed her once in a park in Tokyo. Now, after drinks, he invited her to his hotel, where they had a sexual encounter that she said was against her will. He said it was consensual.
From that conflicted beginning, they embarked on a clandestine, decade-long relationship that included furtive meetings, volleys of amorous notes and several trips overseas.
Over time, the student came to believe that the professor had taken advantage of the power imbalance between them, and that she had never truly consented to any of it.
When she finally broke off the relationship, she made an official complaint to the university and sued the professor for sexual harassment. Her argument: that he had exploited his position as her supervisor when she was 23 to groom her for sex, assault her and then fundamentally hold her under his sway for years.
But in a twist, she also found herself sued by the professor’s wife, accused of adultery and causing mental distress under Japan’s civil code, which views extramarital relationships as an infringement of the marriage contract.
In the end, the wife won nearly $20,000. The professor was fired last year for, the university said, conducting an “inappropriate relationship.” But the young woman lost her case when the court ruled that the professor had never forced her to do anything against her will.
The story of Meiko Sano, now 38; her professor, Michio Hayashi, 63; and his wife, Machiko, 74, highlights the tangled state of sexual power dynamics in Japan, where women rarely bring — much less win — cases for sexual harassment, and where the #MeToo movement has yet to take hold as it has in the West.
Ms. Sano knew her sexual harassment suit against Mr. Hayashi was a long shot. But she went through with it, she said in several interviews, to show how she had experienced “psychological abuse like grooming and gaslighting that Japanese are really not sure about.”
Although the case received muted attention in the Japanese news media, it roiled the Japanese art world and academic community, where, unlike in the United States, few universities prohibit relationships between professors and students. At the same time, rigid age and status hierarchies are culturally pervasive, making it difficult for subordinates — especially women — to say no to their superiors, experts say.
“Within Japan there is this culture where we should all try to get along,” said Yukiko Sato, the director of Spring, a nonprofit advocacy group for sexual assault survivors. “So if you are asked to have sex, you might find it difficult to say no.”
In court, Ms. Sano repeatedly made that argument. But Japan’s laws on sexual assault do not mention consent, reflecting skepticism that anyone can be forced into sex without violence.
“In terms of sexual assault, there has to be a great threat and the victim has to fight back,” said Mizuki Kawamoto, a lawyer who reviewed possible amendments to the country’s sex crimes laws. The current law, she said, does not protect people who “were coerced psychologically into saying yes.”
By contrast, laws in the United States and some European countries take into account that a victim may not be able to consent because of illness or intoxication, or that an offender could exploit a situation of authority.
In court filings, Ms. Sano said that after the first sexual encounter with Mr. Hayashi, “since she wasn’t covered in bruises, she didn’t think of herself as a sexual abuse victim.”
The judge’s ruling, in March, acknowledged a gray zone between coercion and consent, deeming it “suitable” that Mr. Hayashi had been fired. But in tearful remarks, Ms. Sano said the judgment did not take “into account what someone who is in a higher position than you can actually do to your psyche.”
Although Ms. Sano lost the case, the court ordered the professor to pay her 1.28 million yen, close to $9,800, to take responsibility for his share of the penalties imposed on her in his wife’s lawsuit.
Tomoe Yatagawa, who lectures on gender law at universities in Tokyo, said Mrs. Hayashi’s suit might seem “a bit strange” when the marital contract was between husband and wife, yet Ms. Sano was held responsible for breaking it. But experts say these cases are not rare.
Mrs. Hayashi, who declined to comment for this article, said in court filings that she resented her husband for committing adultery but that she did not believe he was guilty of sexual harassment. She accused Ms. Sano of “pushing all the responsibility of their relationship onto my husband, as if she is wholeheartedly the victim.”
Ms. Sano met the professor in 2004, when she was an undergraduate at Tokyo’s Sophia University, and enrolled in Mr. Hayashi’s art history course. He was a well-known specialist in modern Japanese art, with outspoken views on feminism and free speech.
For a long time, their relationship was strictly academic. They discussed her graduate school ambitions. He offered to write her a recommendation and helped her secure an internship.
The summer and fall before she began her graduate studies in 2007, the boundaries between them began to blur as Mr. Hayashi started grooming her, she said, for a romantic relationship. He invited her to regular teas. She felt she could not refuse.
“He would make suggestions for reading or study sessions for grad school, and it felt like he had expectations for me,” Ms. Sano said. “And I felt like I couldn’t betray that.”
Some advocates say Japanese institutions like Sophia need clearer guidance about relationships between students and professors. The government recently called on universities to provide more information about counseling services for sexual harassment and violence, and to disclose when disciplinary actions are taken.
“Any relationship between a supervisor or professor and a student is by definition harassment” because of “the desire to please someone in power,” said Kazue Muta, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Osaka University.
Mr. Hayashi, who declined to comment for this article, admitted in testimony that the relationship had been “inappropriate” because he was married and was Ms. Sano’s supervisor. But he said Ms. Sano had consented to, and even encouraged, it.
One of his primary pieces of evidence was a thank you card she and other students sent him after they joined him on a museum tour around central Japan the summer before Ms. Sano began graduate school. On the card, which she wrote in English, she addressed him as “Dearest Professor H” and signed her message “xox,” a flourish not commonly used in Japan.
“To be addressed as ‘dearest,’ in a message from a student to a professor, there is a familiarity there that is not quite normal,” Mr. Hayashi testified.
Ms. Sano said she meant the note merely to show “gratitude and thanks.”
Mr. Hayashi said he and Ms. Sano “grew closer” as they spent time together, according to the court record. Ms. Sano confided in Mr. Hayashi that she felt like an outsider in Japan after spending much of her childhood in England; he assured her he understood because of his experience abroad.
In the fall, when she began graduate school with Mr. Hayashi as her supervisor, she took a walk with him in a Tokyo park. He kissed her.
“Saying no and making him look bad was out of the question,” she said.
In court filings and testimony, Mr. Hayashi, then 48, said he believed he and Ms. Sano, then 23, were dating.
Ms. Sano accompanied him on the trip to Kyoto that fall, where he was lecturing at an art symposium. She testified that when he asked her to join him in his hotel room, she refused him multiple times and said she should return to her own room. He said the decision to go to his room was mutual.
Both testified that Mr. Hayashi performed oral sex on Ms. Sano, but she portrayed it as unwelcome. She said she asked him repeatedly to wait — signaling resistance, she told the court. “But he kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’” Ms. Sano said.
Over the next 10 years, they regularly met in Tokyo at so-called love hotels, with a mixing of academic discussion and sex. Mr. Hayashi reviewed Ms. Sano’s thesis at one of these hotels, the court filings said.
Ms. Sano sent him affectionate notes and accompanied him on trips to France, Italy and Spain, both while she was under his supervision and after graduation. Mr. Hayashi said such behavior again proved the relationship was consensual, although he acknowledged he wanted to keep it secret.
She said that her behavior was a sign of indoctrination, and that she was afraid to be “rude” to her supervisor, who had authority over her future career.
When she would try to end the relationship, she said in court filings, Mr. Hayashi would accuse her of being “paranoid” or tell her she would never be able to date anyone else. She said Mr. Hayashi told her: “You can sue me for sexual harassment if you wanted to. But you won’t because you’re not that kind of girl.”
Mr. Hayashi said in court filings that he never made those remarks or coerced Ms. Sano and that they were simply “adults enjoying a ‘free love’ relationship.”
“I understand that I was way too naïve, and I still hate myself for it,” Ms. Sano said. “There were so many times where I could have just said, ‘No,’ and run away.”
By the spring of 2018, Ms. Sano was working at an art gallery in Tokyo and broke off the relationship for good. She slowly began to tell her family and a small circle of friends about it — and grappled with an overwhelming sense of shame. She said she began cutting herself and considered suicide.
Shusaku Sano, Ms. Sano’s eldest brother, said his sister told him she had been brainwashed. “I knew for sure that she was hurt,” he said.
Haruko Kumakura, an assistant curator at a museum in Tokyo who collaborated with Ms. Sano on an exhibit, said she was “disgusted” when Ms. Sano told her about Mr. Hayashi, a figure of respect in the art world.
Early the next year, Ms. Sano contacted Mr. Hayashi’s wife. “I just felt like I had to tell her the truth of what had happened and that I was sorry,” Ms. Sano said. Ms. Sano also wanted his wife to know that she felt Mr. Hayashi had manipulated her.
According to court filings, Mr. Hayashi confessed the relationship to his wife, who filed her suit against Ms. Sano.
In an email that was part of the court record, Mrs. Hayashi, through her lawyer, wrote to Ms. Sano, “If the relationship was coerced by my husband, you could have easily filed a complaint with the university” from the start.
Experts in sexual harassment say it will take more than legal action to change the culture.
“The commonly accepted view is that if a woman accepts a kiss or goes on a date then it’s consensual,” said Ms. Muta of Osaka University, who advocates university policies barring romantic relationships between professors and students. “We are struggling to change the climate, but we are not so successful yet.”
Ms. Sano said she was now in therapy, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. She lives with her parents and has not been able to work full time since she left the art gallery in 2019.
One of her primary goals, she said, is to recover “my ability to say no.”