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Japan raises age of sexual consent from 13 to 16

TOKYO — Japanese lawmakers on Friday adopted legislation to raise the country’s age of sexual consent to 16 from 13, an age limit that had remained unchanged since 1907 and was so low that it made Japan an outlier in the developed world.

The change came as a part of an overhaul of Japan’s laws on sex crimes. The new laws were prompted by growing public outcry over repeated acquittals of sexual abusers and increasing instances of people taking sexually exploitative photos and videos without consent — including footage of girls.

Advocates of stricter sex-crimes laws welcomed the changes, but said more needed to be done to ensure greater protection of women and girls in Japan.

“It is still far from the reality of sex crimes and only really scratches the surface. I really hope that the laws will catch up to the reality imminently,” said Ikuko Ishida, founder of sexual violence survivors group Be Brave Japan.

The changes are a part of a gradual modernization of laws that protect victims of sexual crimes. In 2017, Japan revised its Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure for the first time in more than a century to clarify what constitutes rape and to remove the stipulation that only women can be victims of forced sexual assault.


Japan is a male-dominated society with vast underrepresentation of women in positions of power. Its government — run by a mostly older, conservative and elite group of men — has been slow to adopt changes that concern the welfare of women and girls.

An opposition lawmaker resigned in 2021 after public outrage over his comment that it would be “strange” if he were arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old “even if there was consent.”

Human rights advocates and experts say Japan’s weak laws on sexual crimes, especially when it comes to protecting the youth, have exacerbated the fetishization of young Japanese.

“The very fact that the age of consent was set at 13 created the societal mood that teenagers starting at 13 can be exploited sexually and be viewed sexually,” said Hiroko Goto, a law professor and expert on sexual violence at Chiba University.

“It has created a culture and mood where everyone assumes that teenagers have the ability to make decisions around sexual consent, and therefore people don’t question their sexual exploitation,” she said.

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At 13, Japan had the lowest age of consent among the Group of Seven advanced economies and among the lowest in the developed world. The age of consent is 16 in Canada and most states in the United States; 15 in France; and 14 in Germany and Italy.

Japan’s laws regarding sexual consent came under the spotlight in 2019, when a string of defendants charged with sexual crimes was acquitted.

The most shocking case was in Nagoya, where a man was found not guilty after raping his daughter when she was between the ages of 14 and 19. Prosecutors had to prove that the daughter was unable to resist and therefore raped, but the court rejected their argument.

Hundreds of people protested the acquittal, leading to a nationwide movement of “flower demonstrations” expressing solidarity with sexual assault survivors and demanding changes to sex crimes laws.


Prosecutors appealed and the man was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Advocates also noted that had the girl been younger than 13 when she was first sexually assaulted, the court would have automatically ruled her case as rape in the first hearing.

Japanese law requires two conditions for a crime to be punishable as sexual assault: nonconsensual sex and proof that it was “significantly difficult to reject” the sexual attack, either due to physical violence or threat of such violence.

The second condition is ambiguous and burdensome on victims to prove that they could not reject the attack, proponents of change say. The requirements exclude people who could not outright repel an attack, such as when they are in shock or too frightened to fight back, or are being groomed by people close to them, such as family members or educators.

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As a result of these requirements, Japan “still fails to meet international rape legislation standards,” according to Human Rights Now, an NGO based in Tokyo.

They called on Japan to clearly state that all nonconsensual intercourse is rape. But the changes adopted Friday fell short of such wording.

Japan has now identified eight scenarios that could be criminally punished as “forced sexual intercourse,” including sex with victims who could not reject sex because they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“There is definitely progress we are seeing, but we are still disappointed,” said Chisato Kitanaka, member of a citizen’s group of lawyers and organizations supporting sexual crime survivors. “We recognize the fact that the reform this time has definitely broadened what constitutes a sex crime, but it still isn’t enough because it doesn’t clearly stipulate what we have been asking for, which is to say: ‘Sexual intercourse without consent is a crime.’”

Kitanaka and other experts say raising the age of consent from 13 is long overdue, but that the change also needs to come with a more robust effort to educate teens about consent as a part of their sexual education programs, which are currently focused on reproduction and biology.


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“In Japan, there is a saying, ‘Don’t wake someone sleeping,’ which is often used around sex education — meaning that if someone isn’t sexually active, there is no need to teach them about sex and awaken them to it,” said Goto, the law professor.

Issues of consent may be addressed at the university level, but there are few opportunities to teach such curriculum to younger students, she said.

Other newly adopted changes include a crackdown on “photo voyeurism,” making it illegal nationwide for people to take, distribute or possess sexually exploitative photos taken without consent. Until now, such crimes were governed through local ordinance, which led to inconsistent enforcement.

Arrests of people taking surreptitious photography — including of underage athletes in changing rooms, up women’s skirts or at bathhouses — have increased in recent years. In 2021, there were 5,019 such cases, or about three times the figure in 2010, according to the National Police Agency.


Japan will now also penalize grooming and lift the statute of limitation for rape to 15 years from 10 years.

Washington Post » World

Published: 2023-06-16 06:19:37


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