Black Box: Shiori Ito (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

When I first moved to Japan, my supervisor went on and on about the Japanese health care system and how it was free and wasn’t that great. This perplexed me because I already had free health care in Canada, and everyone in every country I had been to up to that point (Europe) also had free health care, so I figured it was a pretty normal thing to have. (Note: this was before the internet was much of a thing and way before social media popped onto the scene with the many heartbreaking posts out of the US for GoFundMes for medical care. I knew that people in the US paid for health care, but I had no idea how much.) But the health care I had in Canada was actually free for me, in that I paid absolutely nothing for the insurance I had. Until I moved to Japan, I had never paid to see a medical doctor. 

It turned out that the Japanese health care my supervisor bragged about wasn’t actually free. Some tens of thousands of yen were taken out of my every pay cheque for my national insurance, which was shocking in and of itself. But then when I fell ill and needed to go to the doctor, I was stunned when the nurse at the front desk told me how much the visit had cost and set out the little money tray for me to put my yens into. I wasn’t stunned at the cost—it was maybe a thousand yen, far from anything that would break my poor bank—I was simply floored by the fact that I was at a doctor and they wanted me to give them money, like some kind of hospital store. I had never experienced this strange phenomenon before. And I haven’t since I moved back to Canada either. I just go to the doctor and get fixed up. The only thing they want from me at the front desk is my health care card. 

I always think about this when I hear people talk about what a “safe” country Japan is, how low the crime rate is. Because the question really becomes in comparison to what and just how they are figuring out this crime rate. I guess if you’re talking American-style mass murders with assault rifles, then sure, yes, Japan is pretty safe. But if you’re looking at sexual assault, domestic abuse, and other crimes that predominantly target women, then no, Japan is very much not a safe place. I don’t know a single woman (and that includes my own self) who doesn’t have at least one story about being assaulted or targeted in some fashion. Sometimes, it’s “only” being groped on the train on your way to work or school. Or maybe an ex stalked you for a while, but never escalated beyond creepy letters in your postbox and waiting outside of your office at lunch. And you count yourself lucky because you see how much worse it could have been. You could have been that British hostess who was murdered and dismembered. 

I put off reading Black Box because I honestly just didn’t want to know more about all the ways systems in Japan fail to keep women and girls safe. In my time living and working in and with this country, I have seen so many women and girls hurt in so many ways, from my own friends to larger stories that are so horrible they get picked up by the media, although always as one-off cases—this one rapist, this one stalker, this one murderer, as if each and every one of these cases wasn’t part of larger societal and systemic issues. But if Ito was brave enough to write this book, then we should be brave enough to read it because she has some powerful things to say. And so I cried and raged my way through all 200-some pages of Powell’s excellent translation. 

Like the reporter she is, Ito lays out all the facts in the case that brought her international recognition and a spot on Time’s 2020 list of influential people. She starts with an introduction from the end of her terrible journey through the Japanese legal system after trying to bring her rapist to justice, noting that she has been so outspoken about her own case because “we must make changes—simultaneously—to the societal and legal systems that handle sexual violence. I hope to enable a society in which we can discuss trauma more openly.” And she closes this introduction with a content warning for the rest of the book. But this warning doesn’t begin to prepare readers for the details she discusses. 

There is so much in these pages that filled me with rage and sorrow for Ito and every woman who has ever had to go through the “second rape” of trying to press charges against their assailant. Ito walks us through each step of the encounter that ended in her assault and then takes us with her as she tries whatever means available to her to take her assailant to court, a very personal story that she tells with great, and no doubt hard won, clarity, filling in blanks with reporting on the number of rape cases prosecuted in Japan, the laws regarding sexual assault in Japan, and a trip to Sweden and the emergency rape centre at Södersjukhuset Hospital. She deftly shows us how her case is part of an overall systemic issue in the way sexual assault is viewed and investigated in Japan. 

Ito is sharp and smart in every line of this book, and Powell keeps up with her every step of the way. I was very impressed with how smoothly Powell slipped in explanations for Japan-specific ideas that likely had no gloss in the original Japanese, right from the first page with “in the National Diet, as the Japanese parliament is called.” For me, the gold standard of a translation like this is if it sounds like it was always in English, and Powell definitely hits this high bar. One of the occupational hazards of being a translator and reading a book translated from your source language is that you can often “see” the source language hiding behind the target language. Happily, I never once had this experience while reading Black Box. It’s simply an excellent translation, and I sincerely hope Powell got hazard pay for doing it and had a good support system on hand to keep the trauma from getting too real. 

So many things about this book hit me hard, but this is the bit that my brain keeps going back to:

People do not want change. In particular, there are people in Japan who still consider it taboo to speak openly about rape. 

To them, I ask, what are you trying to protect, and from whom?

6 thoughts on “Black Box: Shiori Ito (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

      1. I got through book in a day (woot TPL <3), it's a lot. I see what you mean by the quality translation from Powell and Ito's absolute courage. I also appreciated how Ito prefaced every retelling with a goal, e.g. "the reason why I'm reliving this again by telling you what I went through is so that you're aware of xyz", maybe to avoid people dramaticizing it even further? Also crazy (or maybe not, idk) how intertwined the gov and justice system are.
        I was at virtual language exchange and, because I was put in a group with two other Japanese women, brought up this book, and also what you said about differences in what 'safe' is considered to be in Japan vs (e.g.) Canada/US re the prevalence of sexual assault, because I've also heard similar things from friends. And, I was totally shocked, but neither of them knew who she was! I get the impression that not many young people read the news, but one of these ladies has a daughter, and the other is working as well. I know n=2 is not representative of the entire Japanese population, but I wonder if there's a lot more societal pushback/passivity about gender equality than I realized…
        tldr so much to learn, thanks again.

      2. Yay TPL! And yes, it’s really interesting how Ito reiterates her reasons for telling her story. I think part of it is definitely to keep people from dramatizing as much as possible, but I think it might also be a grounding technique for her, a way to get a bit of distance as a journalist. She’s reminding herself and her readers that her story is part of something larger that needs to be addressed.

        And yes! Your sample size might be small, but I think it’s not unrepresentative. I once had to explain the concept of “patriarchy” to a friend who considered herself a feminist because people aren’t having these conversations outside of certain (small) circles. I think a lot about how when #MeToo was growing strong, a Japanese feminist/author talked about how the conversation needed to start even further back in Japan, that Japanese women needed to first be reassured, “This is wrong and it’s okay to be angry.”

  1. Thanks for this review. I’ve been anxious to read the book ever since I heard about it–anxious due to the subject matter but also anxious about how well, due to the subject matter and approach, it might be translated. So I particularly appreciate your comments (and praise) on the translation.

    1. I will always comment on the translation! But Powell really is an excellent translator. I’ve never been disappointed by her work, and this was no exception.

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