Japan revised its sex crime laws for the first time in more than a century on Friday — a historic move that broadens the definition of rape, lengthens prison terms and makes prosecution possible even if those who claim they are victims don’t press charges.
A package of amendments unanimously approved by the Upper House in the final hours of this session of the Diet represents the first shake-up of Japan’s sex crime laws, which have remained effectively untouched since their inception in 1907.
“Japan’s current legal system doesn’t protect people who went through the most unbearable experience human beings could possibly imagine,” Jun Yamamoto, a survivor of childhood molestation, told the Upper House Committee on Judicial Affairs prior to the revised laws’ passage.
For the most part of her adolescence, Yamamoto said she was sexually abused by her own father, who would periodically creep into her bed and fumble her breasts and buttocks.
The Diet also passed a supplementary provision stipulating that the revision will be revisited three years after taking effect.
With Friday’s update, the definition of rape — which has traditionally been limited to vaginal penetration by a penis — will be expanded to include forced anal and oral sex, thereby recognizing that males can be rape victims. The minimum sentences will be raised to five years from three, while rape resulting in death or injury will from now on entail a minimum six years in prison, up from the current five.
Most controversially, offenses such as rape and indecent assault will become prosecutable even if those who claim they are victims do not file formal complaints.
Adults who have taken advantage of “guardianship” roles to sexually abuse children under 18 will face rape and indecent assault charges even if they don’t resort to “violence and intimidation” — currently a prerequisite for convicting sex offenders — in assaulting their victims.
The revision will also cover the robbery-rape law, which has applied only to offenders who commit robbery first and rape second. The law will no longer hinge on robbery preceding rape, and will put offenders behind bars for a minimum of seven years.
Although a major step forward, Friday’s revision still leaves many issues unresolved.
Critics such as Yamamoto want the “violence and intimidation” prerequisite deleted because they say it is out of touch with reality. Rapists, they say, can easily overpower their targets without using force because they are often too scared to put up a fight.
Moreover, some critical changes proposed by a panel of outside experts in 2015 went excluded from the amendments submitted by the Justice Ministry during this Diet session.
Among the unresolved issues is the question of whether the statute of limitations for rape, currently 10 years, should be scrapped or at least lengthened if victims are juveniles. Some people say that it is often the case that by the time minors come to grips with abuse and are prepared to seek justice, they have already run out of time.
Calls for creating a new law banning spousal rape were also unheeded.
The age of consent for sex in Japan will remain notoriously low at 13, too, meaning that sex with people that young won’t be considered a crime if it can be established that the sex was consensual.
“If you’re sexually abused, you’re not treated as human. You just become a belonging of your offender,” Yamamoto, who herself was first molested when she was 13, told the Diet committee. The nightmare, she said, lasted seven years.
“That’s when our souls are killed.”
The revision of the sex crime laws caps months of tumultuous debate in the Diet dominated by conflict of interest scandals linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, as well as the contentious conspiracy bill that skipped usual Diet procedures to be rammed through the legislature by his ruling coalition. The session is set to wrap up on Sunday.
Furor over the allegation that Abe helped finance an ultra-nationalist kindergarten run by Osaka school operator Moritomo Gakuen dominated Diet deliberation before April, denting his Cabinet’s support rate.
A separate, ongoing allegation over Abe’s alleged involvement in the opening of a new veterinary department at a university run by his close confidant, Kotaro Kake, led to the prime minister being forced to explain his false denials at the Diet on Friday.
On Thursday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito coalition steamrolled through the Diet a bill to revise the anti-organized crime law, with a view to cracking down on the planning of as many as 277 crimes. Although ostensibly an attempt to better counter terrorism, the revised law, critics say, could be abused by the law enforcement to impinge on various civil liberties, such as the right to privacy.
The Diet also enacted one-off legislation that will permit Emperor Akihito to abdicate the Chrysanthemum throne, making him the first monarch to do so in 200 years.
The legislation designed to outlaw smoking in pubic institutions such as hospitals, schools and municipal offices, however, ended up not being submitted to this Diet session after the health ministry failed to win approval of the LDP.