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What are Japanese experts' opinions on consent for sex between an adult and child?

After a plenary session of the House of Representatives, Hiranao Honda of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan answers questions from reporters and apologizes at the National Diet building in Tokyo on June 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- An opposition lawmaker recently made a comment to the effect that it would be "absurd" if a 50-year-old and a 14-year-old consented to have sex and the 50-year-old got arrested. Criticism swirled on social media following the legislator's comment, which he made at a meeting to discuss proposals to revise the Penal Code regarding sex crimes including the issue of raising the age of consent, and calls for his resignation erupted. The Mainichi Shimbun examined the background to the remarks and heard the opinions of intellectuals on the age of sexual consent.

    The controversial comment was made by House of Representatives member Hiranao Honda, 56, at a May 10 meeting of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP)'s working team to revise the Penal Code for sexual crimes. According to sources including lower house member Manabu Terata, who chaired the meeting, Honda made the comment after an external lecturer taking part proposed raising the minimum age of consent for sexual acts from 13 to 16. Japanese law unconditionally punishes perpetrators who engage in sexual acts with those under the age of consent.

    Honda apologized and retracted his remarks on June 7, saying that his comments were inappropriate. When interviewed by the media on June 8, he explained, "I agree with the idea of punishing adults to protect those of junior high school age, as discussed by the working team. (But) as it is a law that punishes people, I wanted to carefully consider exceptions."

    On June 8, the working team presented an interim report based on the discussions, and both the pros and cons of the proposal to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 were noted. Noting that some people were cautious about the content which banned adults from having sexual relationships with anyone under junior high school age "for any reason," the report included an objection stating, "Why is it wrong with real consent and real love?"

    The age of consent for sexual acts is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to consent to having sex, and a person who has sex with a person under that age is punished as a perpetrator, regardless of whether there was consent.

    The meeting of the review committee on the Penal Code concerning sexual crimes, which discussed whether laws should be revised to punish sex crimes, was held in Tokyo on April 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Masakatsu Yamamoto)

    Under the current Penal Code, the age of consent is set at 13, and anyone aged 13 or over is considered capable of consenting to having sex. For this reason, for a crime such as rape to be proven, it is necessary to verify that there was an "assault or threat" by the perpetrator.

    It has been pointed out that this setting of "13 years old" has not been changed in Japan for over 100 years and is low compared to other countries.

    A 2017 amendment to the Penal Code on sex crimes established the new crimes of "sexual acts by a custodian" and "indecent acts by a custodian," which allow punishment even in cases without assault or threats if the offender abuses their position of custody or protection of a child under the age of 18 to commit sexual acts. However, there are outstanding issues with this, such as the fact that relatives who do not live together with the person are not included as custodians.

    The 2017 revision stipulates that the law should be reviewed in three years' time based on the actual state of damage caused by sex crimes. The Ministry of Justice's "review committee on the Penal Code concerning sexual crimes" was accordingly launched in 2020 and compiled its report in May of this year after 11 months of discussions.

    The committee also dealt with the issue of raising the age of consent for victims. There was no objection to the view that "when a victim is under a certain age, the decision-making and judging abilities of the victim are not fully developed, and it is necessary to deal with the victim according to their characteristics," but opinions on raising the consenting age were divided.

    What do the experts of the review committee, who are involved in supporting victims of sexual violence, think about Honda's statement?

    Sakura Kamitani, a lawyer involved in victim support, is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on April 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Ran Kanno)

    Psychiatrist Takako Konishi, a professor at Musashino University in Tokyo, said, "In the report of the review committee's discussion, there were no conclusions on raising the age from 13, but it was a common understanding that some kind of protection was necessary. In light of that, his statement was insensitive."

    Konishi pointed out, "In reality, the example of a 50-year-old and a 14-year-old, as used in the statement, often has a certain connection between them, such as a teacher and a student, or an adult and a girl who met on an online dating site." Then, she added, "Teenagers often assume that they are in love when they are told so by adults with whom they have a relationship. In this sense, it can be said that it is a difficult age for them to consent to having sex of their own will, and this must always be taken into consideration."

    Sakura Kamitani, a lawyer who has represented victims and a member of the review committee, explained, "There are so many cases where a child aged around 13 or 14 is suddenly pressured by an adult to engage in sexual activities, but because they were unable to say anything, it is deemed that there was no assault or threat, and thus the cases cannot be punished under the Penal Code. It is because of this reality that we have been considering raising the age limit. The main point of contention was what to do in the case of a pair of 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds."

    According to the report, it was pointed out that if the age was raised from the current 13, even equal romantic relationships between children of the same age group could be punished, but discussions were held in the direction of exempting such cases from punishment.

    In short, based on the discussions of the Justice Ministry's review committee, the argument that "not all sexual acts should be punished because even adults and children can have serious relationships" is unacceptable.

    This provided photo shows Jun Yamamoto, president of Spring, a general incorporated association. (Photo courtesy of Jun Yamamoto)

    The CDP's Terata also announced the opinion of the chairman, saying that sexual acts between adults and minors based on love is "sexual exploitation in the form of love, and it is also a completely male-oriented idea that if they are in a romantic relationship, their partner should want to have sex."

    Jun Yamamoto, a member of the review committee and president of Spring, a general incorporated association of victims of sexual violence, said, "Even if junior high school students become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease, it is difficult for them to go to obstetrics and gynecology clinics on their own since they have no money. There is no consent where there is no equality, and because sexual words and actions without consent have not been recognized as sexual violence, the impossible idea that love can exist between adults and children is talked about without hesitation."

    If we look back at the exhaustive debate experts have engaged in, we can see the depth of the problem in our society, where comments like those of Honda are still coming from members of the Diet.

    (Japanese original by Ran Kanno, Digital News Department)

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