Gonoi, 24, will be among 12 recipients globally of the U.S. award on March 4, according to a U.S. State Department statement, with recognition also going to women from Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, Cuba and others.

"It makes me happy if people saw courage through my actions or they were inspired to change. Accepting this award means my actions weren't wrong. I hope I can give courage to people, and to the people that cannot stand up for themselves," Gonoi told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

A Japanese court in December found three former soldiers guilty of sexually assaulting Gonoi, who joined Japan's Self-Defence Forces after receiving aid from them as an evacuee when a massive earthquake struck the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011.

She quit the military, however, after officers ignored her complaint over an incident in 2021 when she was pinned down by three male colleagues, who simulated a sex act on her.

"Ms. Gonoi's bravery to take on social norms emboldened countless survivors of abuse to come forward with their own stories so that they no longer suffered in silence," said the U.S. statement on the award winners.

After Gonoi went public with her accusations in 2022, Japan's defence ministry issued a public apology and began a widespread survey of harassment in the military and military-linked entities that found more than 1,400 complaints.

"It is an award for women, but I always say women and men should work together to make our society better. It's not about being a woman or man. People should proactively take action for the right things and stand up for themselves," Gonoi told Reuters.

(Reporting by Akiko Okamoto; Writing by Katya Golubkova. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

By Akiko Okamoto