Government-Backed 'Cool Japan' Fund Hit by Harassment Claims

  • Senior executive sought dinners, trips with female employees
  • Labor union formed by employees to hold discussions on July 24

A senior executive at the Cool Japan Fund, a government-backed investor in businesses that promote Japanese culture, has been accused of seeking dates and trips with women working there.

The executive, who wasn’t publicly identified by a lawyer representing the employees, arranged a social gathering at a karaoke pub with several staff in Tokyo about a year ago. When they arrived, the women were presented with random lottery cards that assigned each participant to various tasks, including a one-on-one “wine dinner” with the executive, according to the attorney, Toshiyuki Hanazawa.

Cool Japan confirmed the sexual harassment claims from female employees, but said it couldn’t comment on whether the incidents occurred. “We are taking appropriate steps to uphold internal compliance measures,” a spokesman for the fund said. Kyodo News first reported details of the accusation last week.

The allegations come amid increased scrutiny of sexual harassment and gender bias at venture funds and the technology industry. Cool Japan is the largest investor in the Japan-focused fund of 500 Startups, whose co-founder Dave McClure resigned as general partner this month after several women said he harassed them. This is the first time that a major fund involved with startups has been in the spotlight in Japan, where 29 percent of women are harassed at work, according to a Japanese government study last year of almost 10,000 working women.

“We just want to ask the firm, aren’t you embarrassed to treat your female employees -- especially contract workers who are in a particularly weak position -- as hostess workers?” said Hanazawa, who represents a union formed by the women at Cool Japan.

The women said they thought the lottery game, held on a Friday night, was meant as a joke, according to the lawyer. But after returning to work on Monday, a schedule was drafted for the tasks, which also included seeing a movie together, a trip to an anime exhibition and hand-made presents.

In response, the women called the fund’s sexual harassment hotline, and they weren’t forced to complete the tasks. After saying they were ignored for several months, the women, who are still employed, decided to form a labor union earlier this year. Their organization now includes 27 employees, including both female and male staff, and part-time and full-time workers, according to Hanazawa.

“Going as far as creating a labor union to fight against sexual harassment is quite rare, and inspiring,” Hanazawa said.

The first hearing with Cool Japan is scheduled for July 24, where the labor union will seek the resignation of the senior executive and a change to how the fund handles complaints, Hanazawa said. “They need a proper system for dealing with this,” he said.

Another woman in the union said she was also harassed the previous summer by a different group of senior male employees at the fund, one of whom groped her at dinner while another forced her to hold hands on the train home.

The government provides about 85 percent of the fund’s 69.3 billion yen ($607 million) in capital. Since its inception in 2013, Cool Japan has taken stakes in more than 20 companies, including Japanese TV channel operator Wakuwaku Japan Corp. and cafe chain Green Tea World USA Inc. A separate survey by the Japanese showed harassment has tripled in the decade through 2015, reaching 27 percent of all labor-related complaints fielded by the government help centers.

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