Should men on a crowded train have the right to grope women? According to a prominent right-wing writer and ally of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the answer is “Yes.”

The remarkable contention was made in magazine Shincho 45 this month. Unsurprisingly, a controversy was immediately ignited.

However, what started out as a simple outcry about obscene and morally tone-deaf rantings is spiraling into a scandal that reaches out to touch some of the highest in the land.

It focuses on whether Abe uses right-wing writers and media to manipulate public opinion, and to say things he would never dare say himself.

Gropers and writers

Japan is arguably a male chauvinist paradise. It ranks 114th out of 144 countries in terms of gender equality, a ranking that has been in free fall since Abe assumed office in 2012.

His allies have been behaving (in)appropriately. In recent months, current and former cabinet ministers publicly ridiculed the claims of a female reporter who was allegedly sexually harassed by a senior bureaucrat and accused her of being the criminal. They were later forced to apologize when her allegations were proven true.

That was followed by an LDP lawmaker, personally recruited by Abe, penning a piece bashing homosexuals as “unproductive” because they did not produce children.

Even amid these low standards, a new nadir was reached this month. Eitaro Ogawa, an author and an unofficial mouthpiece of Abe, lobbied for the rights of molesters, or chikan.

“The deepest suffering belongs to the men who are plagued with the symptoms of train groper syndrome in which his hand automatically moves when he steps on a packed train and catches a whiff of a woman,” Ogawa wrote.

“Repeated offenses show that it is an uncontrollable urge stemming from the brain. Shouldn’t society protect and reserve their rights to grope?”

Train groping is indeed a problem in Japan – so much so that there are female-only cars during rush hour so women can go to work without fear of being molested. At the same time, there are also countless adult movies and comics glorifying chikan.

There are even legal sexual massage parlors that replicate subway cars, where men pay for a simulated chikan experience.

Ogawa’s essay was published in controversial right-wing monthly magazine Shincho 45, put out by Shinchosha Publishing on Sept. 18.

Predictably, a brouhaha erupted.

Within days of publication, Shinchosha apologized for its lack of oversight, and last Wednesday, announced the indefinite suspension of the magazine.

Given the damage he had caused, what exactly did Ogawa mean to say?

Supporting molesters?

His intention appears to have been the denigration of sexual minorities rather than an outright promotion of sexual assault. In his essay, he argued that train gropers and LGBT are essentially the same thing – sexual deviants – and lumped them together with an anagram he himself created: SMAG – sadists, masochists, ass fetishists and gropers.

According to Ogawa’s logic, groping people on trains and being homosexual are just different kinds of deviance. Ergo: Offering to protect the rights of one group (LGBT) over another (gropers) is ridiculous.

Critics of this thinking have not held their fire.

“I think that the magazine ceasing publication has a lot do with the #MeToo movement growing in Japan and more people willing to point out what is just simply wrong,” stormed Mari Hiryama, a professor of law at Hakuou University. “The thought process behind arguing that the rights of gropers and the rights of LGBT are the same is completely mistaken.

His utterances may even discourage victims of sexual assault from coming forward. What in the world was Ogawa thinking when he made such a dubious statement?”

That is a fair question. And was he being malicious or just plain ignorant? Aya Goda, the editor of LGBTQ magazine Palette, suspects it is the latter.

“I think his inappropriate and discriminatory remarks come from total ignorance. But if we are going to blame his ignorance, perhaps we must blame the structure of Japanese society,” she said. “Japan’s schools and media aren’t fertile ground for promoting correct knowledge of LGBTQ.

“For the sake of the next generation, in order to prevent further remarks like his, we need to encourage a better understanding of sexual diversity.”

Such an understanding may be particularly essential in conservative circles, including some major publishers and close Abe allies.

Pols, publishers, penmen

The suspended Shincho 45 had previously drawn fire for an opinion piece in its August issue by Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita, who had been recruited into the LDP by Abe. In her column, she labelled gay couples “unproductive” on the grounds they don’t reproduce. Sugita added that taxpayer money should not be wasted on support for sexual minorities.

Despite a resultant public outcry, Abe refused to condemn or admonish her. He explained in a television program that he didn’t ask her to resign because “she’s still young.”

Sugita is 51.

She has also blamed victims of sexual assault for being victimized, has ridiculed the plights of refugees and essentially serves as the party’s leading bullhorn.

It was thanks to Sugita that Shincho 45 may have sealed its own doom. On Sept. 18th, it ran a lengthy 37-page special feature entitled “Is Mio Sugita’s article that outrageous?”

That was the title of Ogawa’s now notorious piece.

In it, he answered the question by not just penning a defense of Sugita’s homophobic rant, but by pushing the boat out even further. Ogawa also appeared with Sugita, in a joint interview for another right-wing publication, Japanism, published this August.

And it is Ogawa who is arguably the most outspoken and controversial of Japan’s right-wing writers.

The pitbull with a pen

Ogawa, a self-proclaimed literary critic, has made a career out of praising the prime minister while putting the boot into his enemies – making him a combination of Abe’s lapdog and pit-bull.

He was a relatively unknown author until 2012, when his book The Promised Day, lauding Abe and his first term as prime minister from July 2006 to September 2007 was printed by Gentosha, a right-wing publisher.

The book appeared shortly before Abe ran in the party’s election to be president of the LDP, and the book is partly credited with his political comeback. Abe’s political fund, Shinwakai, reportedly spent 7 million yen ($61,000) purchasing copies of the book, elevating it briefly to best-seller status.

While Ogawa has made a tidy sum wielding his pen on behalf of Abe, he has also stabbed himself with it – even before his latest blunder.

Last year, just prior to general elections, Ogawa released a book accusing the liberal Asahi newspaper of fabricating scoops involving Abe’s abuse of power to benefit political cronies. The LDP also reportedly bought thousands of copies of that work, pushing it up onto the bestseller list.

However, the allegations in the book were so serious that the Asahi took the rare step of suing him and his publisher for defamation. That case is still in court, meaning Ogawa could end up facing severe and expensive legal repercussions.

Ogawa isn’t the only writer to be rewarded tangibly or intangibly for lavishly praising the Prime Minister.

Controversy spirals into scandal

Journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi, who was given the scoop on Abe’s retirement in 2007, also appears to have benefitted. In 2015, while working on his book Prime Minister (Sori) about Abe’s struggles, a female journalist, Shiori Ito, filed charges of sexual assault against him.

The police began an investigation and held a warrant to seize Yamaguchi on rape charges. But on June 8, his arrest was called off at the last minute by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Criminal Investigations Chief Itaru Nakamura.

Nakamura was a friend of the prime minister and the former secretary to Abe’s second-in-command, Cabinet Spokesman Yoshihide Suga. Nakamura not only halted the arrest, he replaced all the detectives on the case.

On June 9, 2016, while the prosecutors were still reviewing the case, Yamaguchi’s book was published by Gentosha, the same publishers of Ogawa’s 2012 work The Promised Day. On July 22,, prosecutors dropped all charges against Yamaguchi, who has denied all wrong-doing. Ogawa has publicly expressed support for Yamaguchi.

Shincho 45 once had up to 50,000 readers a month, but has suffered a drastic drop in recent years. Since 2016, it has veered to the right in order to boost sales. The publisher admits that their trial-and-error efforts to boost sagging sales resulted in insufficient oversight of content.

Ironically, after the company announced it would cease publishing the magazine, prices of remaining issues sky-rocketed, with some used copies going for 10 times the cover price.

The sad part of this debacle is that Shinchosha also publishes Shukan Shincho, a weekly magazine which features some of the best investigative journalism in Japan. In fact, it was Shukan Shincho which first published a series of articles on the obstruction of standard criminal procedure in the rape investigation concerning Shiori Ito, which was later followed up by The New York Times, while the BBC released a documentary on the case, Japan’s Secret Shame, this summer.

Ogawa has not walked back his essay, nor has he apologized. As he usually does in such cases, Abe has remained silent.

However, newspapers and commentators in Japan are now openly discussing the problems with Shincho 45, right-wing magazines like Japanism, Hanada and others. Much of the discussion centers not only on content, but on whether these magazines are acting as the voice of the administration.

While Abe has not made discriminatory or misogynist statements himself, his propensity to represent himself with misogynists, gay-bashers and accused sex offenders is raising big questions. Japan is starting to wonder.