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‘Something had been brutally obliterated’ [book review]

A review of Black Box by Shiori Ito, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

Content warnings: rape, sexual assault.

In April 2015, Shiori Ito, then a promising young TV journalist, met up in Tokyo with Noriyuki Yamaguchi, an older and highly respected journalist she had met during a stint working in New York. The aim of the meeting was to discuss getting a business visa for Ito, so that she could take up a new post in the USA. After being taken ill in a restaurant and passing out in the toilets, Ito woke up in a hotel room with Yamaguchi raping her. She managed to escape and fled the hotel – an expensive one, with round-the-clock receptionist and doorman – knowing as she did so that ‘something had been brutally obliterated’.

Cover image Black Box

The rape itself – enabled, Ito later found out, by date-rape drugs, and recounted here in unflinching prose – was brutal enough, yet it was what followed that makes up the majority of Ito’s memoir Black Box, a searing and extremely important expose of the failings of the Japanese legal system when it comes to women who have been abused or raped. Despite the existence of security camera footage, eyewitness testimonies (such as that of a taxi driver, who could testify to Ito having been taken to the hotel against her will) and even emails between Yamaguchi and Ito in which he failed to dispute the fact that he might have made her pregnant, Ito’s case was said to be a ‘black box’ – the rape had taken place behind closed doors and so Yamaguchi could not be held to account. A painfully slow police investigation not only failed to arrest Yamaguchi when given the chance, but also put Ito through several traumatic ordeals, including having to re-enact the rape in a room full of male police officers. Each individual detail is shocking; together, they add up to a picture that is horrifying.

While Black Box is specifically about Ito’s experience and Japan’s way of dealing with such cases – she lays bare the internal workings of a patriarchal society, in which a blind eye is turned to assault of all kinds, support for victims is utterly lacking, and there is even a distinction between rape and the astonishing concept of ‘quasi-rape’ – the book also speaks more universally to the chronic underreporting of sexual assault. Ito draws compelling comparisons between Japan and countries like Sweden, which has a strong victim-support system in place and, crucially, ensures that those who need it know where it can be found. In a state of utter shock and crushed by ‘a vast sense of helplessness’, Ito tried to continue as normal after her ordeal, inadvertently wiping out the window for getting herself proper medical attention and collecting valuable DNA evidence. Her book, she makes clear, is in part to educate young women in case they ever need to know the things she didn’t, but more than this, it is a courageous attempt to effect change in a system that is currently failing.

‘How many people have been forced to go on living, their hearts shattered?’ Ito asks, and yet the woman who comes across in this book is far from the classic ‘victim’ stereotype. This breaking of the mould is extremely important, giving Black Box a redoubled impact and highlighting what society – in Japan and beyond – tends to expect from the survivors of rape. When she did finally report Yamaguchi, Ito was told coolly, ‘“You’ve got to act more like a victim,”’ simply because she was able to state the facts without crying. Putting on a mask was her entirely understandable way of dealing with the trauma, but seeing her slowly come to terms with the sense that she is no longer the same person is agonising for the reader. Heartbreaking, too, her family’s attitude – Ito’s younger sister, one of her primary motivations in writing the book, which she hopes will create legal and social change so that her sister is never in danger of having the same experience, refused to speak to her for many months after Ito held a press conference to make her accusations against Yamaguchi public. Though in her afterword Ito reports the rift to have healed, it is one more painful and not at all insignificant layer of the social shaming to which she was subjected.

Its content is in many ways harrowing, yet Black Box is a vital book and an extraordinarily compelling reading experience. Almost impossible to put down, Ito’s book guides us through her life leading up to and after the rape (her younger years are a marvel in themselves) with the clear-sightedness of a journalist and a storyteller’s gift for the details that create a vivid scene. Never losing her cool tone – her prose is at times clinical, though she doesn’t shy from sharing her feelings in condensed but powerful sentences: ‘I wished I could have flung off my own body’ – she guides the reader expertly through complex legal tangles and a minefield of emotions, leaving us by turns raging and distraught but, ultimately, inspired. It is impossible to read this book without recognising the immense courage it took to write, let alone with such elegance and investigative depth. Credit is due here also, of course, to translator Allison Markin Powell, who has rendered Ito’s unwavering voice so sharply into English.

One man raped Shiori Ito, yet the attempts to silence and humiliate her afterwards are the responsibility of many – an entire system. Black Box is a furious cry for revolution, one that goes beyond a harrowing personal memoir and investigates the opaque ‘black boxes’ constructed all over the world. Ito places some of this responsibility on the reader’s shoulders, too: ‘So, what do you think?’ she asks directly, in the final line of the book. A rare and transformative work of literature, Black Box has already had a major impact in Japan and, I sincerely hope, will do so in translation the world over.


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