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Former Japanese soldier fights for justice in landmark sexual assault case

By Akiko Okamoto and Chris Gallagher

YOKOHAMA (Reuters) - A former Japanese soldier's years-long fight for justice against the men she has accused of sexually assaulting her will reach a climax on Tuesday when a court delivers a verdict in a trial that has drawn international attention.

After leaving the Self-Defence Forces in 2022, Rina Gonoi, 24, went public with accusations against her ex-colleagues, a rare step in a male-dominated society where speaking out against sexual violence has remained somewhat taboo.

She has received a public apology from the government and global recognition - Time Magazine named Gonoi in its list of 100 emerging world leaders - but has also been the target of online vitriol.

"I am appreciative of the fact that they value what I'm doing. There is a tendency in Japan when people speak up, they get criticised," Gonoi told Reuters in an interview.

"I have gotten many derogatory comments. But I know the world values what I'm doing so I don't think I made a mistake (of coming forward)."

Gonoi has said she received constant harassment after enlisting in 2020, which escalated in 2021 when she alleges three male colleagues pinned her to the ground, pulled her legs apart and began pressing their crotches against her in a simulation of a sex act while others watched and laughed.

She complained to her superiors at the time but said she decided to leave when no action was taken. After her complaints began receiving wider attention, Japan's defence ministry issued a public apology to her and announced that five of the men involved had been dismissed and four others punished.

The sexual assault case is being heard in the Fukushima district court and her alleged attackers deny the charges.

Gonoi has also lodged a civil case against the government for failing to prevent abuse and investigate her claims.

Her cases come as Japan seeks to recruit more women soldiers and build up its military to deter its powerful neighbour China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

"I think it (my court case) will change (Japanese society) and that is why I'm fighting. There are many Japanese women that cannot speak up and bring their case forward," said Gonoi, who now works at a security firm in Tokyo and teaches judo to children and adults on her days off.

"I can't sleep everyday, this week (before the verdict) feels very long, I saw the guys (defendants) in my dream, I feel pressured... Really, it's difficult to keep myself together."

(Reporting by Akiko Okamoto and Chris Gallagher; Editing by John Geddie and Neil Fullick)