Unless you read all the way to the bottom, the poster might look like it’s sending the wrong message.

The heart of Japan’s Cabinet Office was, ostensibly, in the right place. As part of its annual campaign to raise awareness about physical and mental abuse towards women, the government organization enlisted popular actor Mikihisa Azuma to appear in a sexual harassment poster, which can be seen in the tweet below.

Azuma shows up four times on the poster. In the upper left, he’s seen winking and saying to a women, who’s dressed in a short-sleeved pink blouse, “Your outfit today is cute. It’s just the sort of fashion I like.” Meanwhile, at the top right, a smiling Azuma, speaking to another woman, says “You look beautiful. Have you lost weight?”

Neither woman looks particularly happy to hear his comments. “That’s got nothing to do with anything,” says the woman whose clothing Azuma commented on, while the other responds to his observation about her figure with, “Is that what you’re spending all your time looking at…”

However, the largest image of Azuma is the one in the middle, where he’s wearing an expression of shock and dismay, with large-font white text right under his face that asks the question “This is sexual harassment too?” Underneath that, written is blue, is the admonition “You aren’t the one who decides what is and isn’t sexual harassment!”

The look on Azuma’s face in the central photo, as well as the phrasing of the warning in blue, have some online commenters upset over what they interpret as the poster emphasizing the wrong victim. “How come in a campaign to raise awareness about violence towards women the main image is one of a male entertainer who seems to be saying ‘We’re the real victims here’?” asked one Twitter user. “Instead of a poster to protect women, it’s just taking the side of the middle-aged men who sexually harass them,” said another.

As reprehensible as such an intent would be, though, it doesn’t seem to be what the designers were actually going for. At the bottom of the poster, Azuma appears for the fourth and final time, holding up his index finger, the standard Japanese expression for “Pay attention and don’t forget this.” To his right, in white text, is the message “Be considerate in your behavior to the people you’re talking to and the surrounding environment.”

Even if one were to take the position that the way the women on the poster react to Azuma is overly sensitive and overblown, they still wouldn’t qualify as “inconsiderate.” With the added context of the words that appear next to the actor’s finger-raising likeness, it seems pretty clear that what the cabinet office hoped to convey was the idea that words can make people uncomfortable even without the intent to offend, that it’s important to consider and be accommodating of the fact that what you think of as a compliment may not be received as such, and that if the opinion you’re about to express falls in a gray area, the best thing to do is to keep it to yourself.

▼ There’s also the fact that when sharing the poster’s image through its official account, the Cabinet Office also tweeted “Violence towards women of any kind, including domestic violence and sexual harassment, is absolutely unacceptable.”

But while a picture is worth a thousand words, it doesn’t say any of them explicitly. The posters’ designers may have felt that Azuma’s startled expression reflects how completely unaware some people are of the ill effects of what they believe are innocuous comments, and thus serves as a reminder to not use your opinion as the absolute measure of what is and isn’t acceptable, which would make the “you” in “You aren’t the one who decides what is and isn’t sexual harassment!” a reference to men who are speaking to women. To critics, though, Azuma’s expression looks like one of frustration at unreasonable reactions from the women he’s talking to, making the “you” feel like it’s pointing at the women who feel they’re being sexually harassed.

Unfortunately for the Cabinet Office, you have to make your way pretty far down the poster before coming to the “Be considerate in your behavior to the people you’re talking to and the surrounding environment” part. By that point many people were already offended by what they saw as a belittlement of the issue, and those men who do think society has become too concerned about sexual harassment claims were likely already nodding their heads and saying “See? Other people think this hypersensitivity has gone too far too.” Because of that, a redesign might be in order if the Cabinet Office wants the poster to actually fulfil the role it had in mind for it.

Source: Livedoor News/Josei Jishin via Otakomu, Twitter/@cao_japan
Featured image: Twitter/@cao_japan