Jasmine Vo was eating an ice cream sandwich for breakfast when 5,000 viewers tuned in. The 25-year-old woman from Canada was broadcasting her life in Osaka, Japan, chatting away to her followers on the livestreaming site Twitch as she strolled the empty streets before sunrise.
Frustrated with the tedium of her office job in Toronto, Vo spun a wheel during a stream in January last year to pick where she would go. The needle fell on Japan. A few weeks later, Vo boarded a plane to Tokyo and began traveling all over the country, funding her trips through her savings.
This same stream was also the only witness to a crime that left Vo shaken on that warm summer morning in Osaka, when a stranger approached her, groped her waist and poked her breasts.
Watching the assault unfold before their eyes through the screen, her followers urged her to leave, while some viewers played a siren sound effect in her stream. “It was at that moment I thought, ‘Okay, this is a camera. It can’t protect me. This man keeps on grabbing me. He won’t let me go,’” Vo told VICE World News. Panicking, she walked away from her attacker, who followed her for several blocks before backing off.
“I was crying uncontrollably. I just felt really alone,” Vo said.
The brazenness of the September attack reflects how prevalent groping is in Japan despite high-profile measures such as designating train cars that are exclusive to women during rush hours. In 2019, 70 percent of Japanese women said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted in public, according to a survey by WeToo Japan, an advocacy group founded in response to the #MeToo movement in the United States.
But like many other victims of sexual violence in Japan, Vo did not report the crime to the police, expressing a sense of helplessness shared by many other victims.
Only 4.3 percent of rape cases in Japan were reported to the police, according to a government survey conducted in 2014. In comparison, 36 percent of rapes in the United States were reported, according to UN Women, a United Nations entity that collects statistics on crimes against women.
Mao Natsume, a lawyer in Osaka who has handled sexual violence cases, said victims of sexual abuse, from harassment to rape, face extremely high hurdles when going to the police.
“Victims often have to experience multiple interrogations about the details of the crime. For instance, if a man put his penis in a victim’s mouth, the victim is asked ‘How big was it? Was it hard? For how long was it in your mouth?’ Some victims find this questioning too mentally taxing and often keep the crime to themselves,” she told VICE World News.
A spokeswoman for the Osaka police department declined to respond to questions on how it handles sex crimes and said it could not comment on Vo's case because she did not report it.
Human rights groups have criticized Japanese laws for being too lenient to perpetrators of sexual violence. Under current law, sexual violence is only criminally punishable when the perpetrator is proven to have clearly assaulted or intimidated the victim. If a victim was too afraid to move, or froze during the attack, then their reaction could be deemed consensual, thereby dismissing the case.
Natsume said that this high burden of proof discourages victims from coming forward.
For Vo, sexism and a culture of victim blaming on Twitch only made her feel worse. She even worried that her being assaulted on camera would get her kicked off the platform.
”I was so overwhelmed… I was afraid that I would get backlash, or that Twitch would ban me,” Vo said.
The gamer-centric livestreaming platform has come under fire for creating an environment hostile to women. In June, streamers organized a blackout to pressure the company to address sexual harassment that takes place on the website and in the gaming world.
“Because the platform majority is males, sometimes as a female, you can be seen in a certain light,” Vo said. Even if people witnessed the attack, she said, “there’d unfortunately be comments about how ‘You deserve this,’ ‘You’re wearing certain clothing,’ or ‘You brought this upon yourself.’ I would get so many comments like that.”
Jeffrey Nguyen, a 25-year-old digital marketer and one of Vo’s Canadian followers, told VICE World News that he thought “the way she was dressing was a bit revealing but clearly she was uncomfortable with the guy and was telling him to stop.”
“Maybe it would be better for her if she didn’t wear those kinds of clothes to help deter those types of people.”
Scarred by the attack, Vo said she changed her behavior. “There are times where I decide ‘I’m not going to wear this because I’m afraid something might happen.’ I’m a lot more wary about precautions.”
A spokesperson for Twitch told VICE World News that the platform has made changes to make it more inclusive. “We have a number of projects underway to address the harassment that streamers face, which we know disproportionately affects women and other underrepresented groups. Sexual harassment is never acceptable on Twitch, and we have adopted a far lower tolerance for objectifying or harassing behavior,” the company said in a statement.
Ellie Li, an Australian Twitch streamer in Japan who was stalked during a livestream, said that the same dismissive response to women’s experiences of harm was not limited to any nationality.
“I try to broaden the topic so people understand it’s not just Japan,” Li said, citing comments she saw calling Japanese men “perverts.”
“Yes, there are inequalities in Japan. Yes, the dichotomy between men and women is much more pronounced in Japanese culture than it is in the West. But that comes with its own pros and cons. In the West, we just hide it better.”