black box book cover

Nonprosecutable: A Review of Shiori Ito’s Black Box

by | July 13, 2021

Black Box: The Memoir that Sparked Japan’s #MeToo Movement (Feminist Press, 2021) embodies a metaphor, which its author, Shiori Ito, smashes. In color, shape, and function, the book mimics its title, a reference to a figure of speech used to hide the facts of rape. Ito, a journalist and sexual assault survivor, invites readers to enter the black box with her. Once inside, she reveals the truth about sexual violence in Japan and in so doing, Ito empowers readers to engage in the very act that authorities conjure the black box to thwart.

For 224 pages, we bear witness to a richly contextualized history of trauma.

In the book’s introduction, Ito explains that she held a press conference in Tokyo in 2017. Her purpose was to publicize a legal appeal. Two years prior, Ito had reported a rape which authorities deemed “nonprosecutable.” More specifically, the prosecutor assigned to Ito’s case told her that the incident was a “black box,” insisting that because a man had attacked her “behind closed doors,” what happened to her at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel was doomed to remain a mystery.

Ito proceeds to demonstrate that violence that happens in private is as knowable as it is ubiquitous. While Japanese society stereotypes rape as “a situation in which a woman is suddenly attacked by a stranger in a dark alley,” the reality differs dramatically. According to the Cabinet Office of the Japanese government, acquaintances are responsible for 88.9% of the country’s rapes. In the United States, the numbers are nearly identical, with acquaintances responsible for 8 out of 10 rapes. That familiarity facilitates rape is further emphasized by the following statistic: about a third of sexual assaults committed by an acquaintance are perpetrated by a romantic partner. In light of these numbers, it makes more sense to caution fiancées about the possibility of marital rape than it does to reprimand girls for walking alone at night.

Indoors can be much more fraught than outdoors.

Ito narrates Black Box, which at first glance seems to be written as a police procedural, in hardboiled style. In “Chapter One: My Life, Up Until That Day,” the author introduces herself, offering a brief biography that charts her coming-of-age as a suburban Japanese girl born in 1989. She includes an account of having studied in Kansas during her teen years and in a transnational moment, Ito implicitly connects the violence that she will soon reconstruct to a “bad [thing]” that happened in the “small [American] town” she briefly called home: “An immigrant girl from Mexico was kidnapped and murdered.”

After the femicide, Ito’s American host warns her to “never get in a car” with an aggressor, even one who is armed with a gun. The host’s instructions indicate that she believes that force, and not familiarity, facilitates harm, a misunderstanding that Black Box takes up as an urgent theme. Ito muses, “In Kansas’s wide open and desolate land, there were definitely times where I was frightened.” That line, which introduces a poetic paragraph about the state’s “vast space,” seems a nod toward Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That classic begins, “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” Like Capote’s non-fiction novel, Ito’s memoir also re-invigorates the true crime genre, taking the police procedural and bending it into an anti-procedural, one in which authorities violate, twist, and ignore their own laws. Through denial, obfuscation, and corruption, these entities collectively build Japan’s black box.

By 2013, Ito is a long way from Kansas. In New York, she meets Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the Washington bureau chief of the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and the two cross paths in a setting where many people encounter a future attacker: the workplace. A piano bar employs Ito, Yamaguchi is one of her customers, and when the TBS chief learns that Ito is studying journalism, he offers his professional support. The two exchange a series of emails and their digital correspondence, which Black Box reproduces in its entirety, shows Yamaguchi repeatedly offering to help Ito secure a position as a TBS producer.

In 2015, Ito and Yamaguchi plan to meet in Ebisu, a Tokyo neighborhood. Ito believes that the purpose of their meeting is to discuss her future. She reasonably anticipates that others will join them.

On the night of April 23, Ito and Yamaguchi walk from a train station to a kushiyaki bar. While the bar is cozy, Ito notices that something seems off: “…no one else [was] there waiting for us, and in the back of my mind, I was surprised that it was just us two.” For about an hour and a half, the two eat, drink and discuss journalism. Next, they go to a sushi restaurant. Ito excuses herself to the restaurant bathroom where dizziness overcomes her: “I sat down on the toilet with the lid closed and rested my head on the tank. That’s the last thing I remember.”

When she regains consciousness, Ito is in a hotel room where Yamaguchi is raping her and she narrates the incident with stark vulnerability, acknowledging that she “can’t bear to remember the moment when [she] came to.”

After brutalizing Ito, Yamaguchi perversely tells her, “I’ve really fallen for you.”

It takes days for Ito to acknowledge that someone she knows and trusted has raped her and when she begins to take steps toward redress, she seeks medical care before filing a criminal complaint. Ito’s commitment to journalism compels her to seek, piece together, and tell the truth about the events of April 23 and though she embarks on a legal quest, becoming a de-facto detective in the process, the meaning of redress remains unclear until the book’s final pages.

That Yamaguchi drugged the author with a memory-disrupting substance tortures her and Black Box details how the devastation of rape persists well after the initial violation. Ito presents sexual assault not as a single incident but as a superstructure, one in which the initial harm serves as a starting point for subsequent re-traumatization. By using personal narrative to locate herself within this superstructure, Ito is able to implicate individuals, social groups, and institutions, tracing how these interact with one another to reproduce the black box, a receptacle that functions as a social coffin. Without validation of one’s traumatic experiences, survivors may come to feel entombed, like ghosts that patriarchal societies refuse to acknowledge along any sensory registers. In this necrotic regard, Black Box serves as a multi-sensory haunting.

In 2019, the Japanese legal system finally validates Ito: “…the decision in my two-year-long civil trial for…rape was announced. I won the case, and the decision acknowledged that ‘there had not been consent.’” Ito follows this triumphant sentence by explaining her motive for writing Black Box, “If, as in many Western countries, sexual intercourse without consent was routinely prohibited in criminal law, and I had found redress, then perhaps I wouldn’t have gone to the length of writing this book.”

If one’s definition of redress for rape hinges on felony conviction, then redress remains out of reach for 99.3% of the country’s sexual assault survivors.

I reside in what is considered a “Western” country, and while our penal code criminalizes sexual violence, it is popular wisdom among survivors that rape is a tacitly accepted American social norm. Put more succinctly, US culture is a rape culture and legal authorities are well aware of the widespread impunity experienced by perpetrators. These authorities both produce and study this impunity. According to figures collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, 0.7% of rapes and attempted rapes end with a felony conviction for the perpetrator.”

If one’s definition of redress for rape hinges on felony conviction, then redress remains out of reach for 99.3% of the country’s sexual assault survivors.

The American release of Ito’s memoir, which was published in Japan in 2017, eerily coincides with Bill Cosby’s release from a Pennsylvania prison. In 2005, Cosby testified under oath that he used his fame, a quality synonymous with familiarity, to pursue, isolate, and assault women and the entertainer admitted to drugging those he wanted to have sex with. In 2018, a jury found Cosby guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault, thus placing him in a rare statistical category, that of convicted sexual assault perpetrator. The press hailed the high-profile judgement against Cosby a win for #MeToo but on June 30 of this year, a legal decision struck down the conviction on constitutional grounds. Media coverage of Cosby’s release became a taunting reminder that our national culture is a rape culture. Meanwhile, Black Box reminds us that rape culture is also a transnational phenomenon.