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Many sexual violence victims in Japan do not report assaults to police, support groups: survey

Jun Yamamoto, representative director of the general incorporated association Spring, right, is seen speaking about the findings of a sexual abuse survey and discussion surrounding revision of Penal Code provisions regarding sexual crime, on Nov. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

TOKYO -- A survey of sexual abuse victims in Japan released on Nov. 20 has shown that under 30% of victims reported the damage to police or support groups, while many face difficulties acknowledging abusive acts as sexual violence.

    The survey, conducted online between August and September by the sexual assault survivors' organization Spring, questioned 5,899 victims of sexual abuse. The group plans to submit the results to a panel of experts at the Ministry of Justice, which has been carrying forward discussion on revisions to the Penal Code to make nonconsensual sexual intercourse punishable. Debate on Penal Code provisions regarding sexual crimes had mainly been based on actual lawsuits. Spring's move is significant in that it will provide an opportunity for voices that have not reached the judicial sphere to be taken up for discussion.

    Of those who answered the survey, 96.4% were female. The most common form of sexual assault, claimed by 63.9% of respondents, was "being groped over clothing," followed by "being groped beneath clothing" (34.6%), "being shown genitals and other parts" (31.3%), and "abuse involving insertion into the mouth, anus, or vagina" (21.5%). Cases including the perpetrator ejaculating on, kissing, or masturbating near the victim were reported under "other" and accounted for 14.7% of the total.

    A total of 34% of all respondents answered that they had been harassed by "parents, parents' partners, relatives, or other acquaintances." However, when limited to sexual assault involving insertion, the proportion of cases with the above harassers rose to 59%. Furthermore, over 80% of respondents who claimed they were sexually abused via insertion of bodily organs by parents, parents' partners, or relatives, were aged 12 or younger -- highlighting the severity of sexual abuse of children.

    A site of a "flower demo" protest against sexual abuse is shown in this photo taken in front of JR Tokyo Station in the capital's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

    According to the survey, 47.9% of respondents were able to acknowledge that the acts inflicted on them were sexual abuse immediately after the assault. But 52% answered that they were unable to recognize the assault immediately after it happened. Such individuals required an average of seven years to acknowledge the abuse. Acknowledging the sexual assault took eight or more years for 34.8% of respondents.

    Experts have repeatedly pointed out how victims have difficulties acknowledging sexual abuse. Particularly in cases where the victim and perpetrator know each other, the attacker can take advantage of a power imbalance in a relationship or their own social status to force the victim into a situation where they are unable to resist even when there is no violence or coercion. In such cases, classified as "entrapment" abuse, as well as cases involving alcohol, victims tend to be ridden by guilt and find it difficult to acknowledge sexual acts as assault.

    Azusa Saito, a lecturer at Mejiro University who attended a Nov. 20 conference at the House of Representatives where the survey results were announced, commented, "Especially in the case of children, it takes time for them to be able to acknowledge what happened to them. Also, there is a popular conception that sexual abuse is something that suddenly happens one day on the street. Therefore, when someone you know is behind the abuse, it doesn't conform with this conception, giving rise to cases where the sexual abuse remains unacknowledged."

    Jun Yamamoto, representative director of the general incorporated association Spring, right, is seen speaking about the findings of a survey on sexual abuse on Nov. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

    Under Japan's Penal Code, charges can be filed over crimes involving forcible sexual intercourse up to 10 years after they took place, while crimes of forcible indecency have a seven-year limit. There appear to be many cases where victims cannot demand legal punishment against perpetrators even if they are finally able to acknowledge being sexually abused due to difficulties imposed by time limits for filing suits and preservation of evidence.

    The survey also found that only a handful of sexual abuse cases are reported to police or brought to court -- shedding light on latent cases.

    Just 10.9% of all respondents consulted experts or support groups over the abuse, and only 15.1% contacted police. Furthermore, victim reports were accepted by police for only 7% of all respondents, while merely 0.7% reported that their attackers were indicted and found guilty in lawsuits.

    Under current law, sexual violence is criminally punishable when the perpetrator is proven to have assaulted or intimidated the victim. However, the survey found that many people who fell victim to sexual abuse involving insertion of bodily organs had experienced fear even if there weren't clear forms of assault or intimidation. Among such respondents, there were individuals who claimed that they couldn't move their body, or that it was difficult to resist the attack due to a sense of fear.

    Jun Yamamoto, representative director of the association Spring, stressed, "We want a law to be created that directs its attention to the reality of sexual abuse cases that are buried and do not reach the judicial sphere. I'd like for us to foster a society that places trust in the voices of victims."

    (Japanese original by Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)

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