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Editorial: Japan's legal penalties for sex crimes need further review

Japan's Ministry of Justice compiled a tentative proposal to revise legal provisions setting punishments for sex crimes. The move, to a certain degree, meets the urgent cries of victims seeking just handling of sex offenses, which can have catastrophic psychological effects.

    The draft revisions to the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure were put together based on discussion at a subcommittee meeting of the Justice Ministry's Legislative Council, and were presented as a springboard for debate.

    Under current law, the crime of forcible sexual intercourse and other sex offenses apply if there is assault or intimidation, or if the perpetrator takes advantage of a victim's inability to resist. However, there are cases that go unpunished on the grounds that they do not specifically fall under actions subject to criminal charges. There is also criticism that judgments differ among prosecutors and judges due to ambiguity in the laws' provisions.

    The ministry's draft widens the range of punishable acts. It sets forth that sexual acts are a crime if the victim is in a state where it is difficult to reject sexual advances. The draft raised eight specific cases that would be considered a crime, such as sexual acts accompanied by "assault or intimidation," actions taking advantage of "physical or mental disability" or "the influence of alcohol or drugs," acts conducted after inducing a psychological reaction caused by abuse, and "the misuse of economi or social status."

    The Justice Ministry is also eyeing harsher penalties for sexual violence against children. Currently in Japan, sexual activity involving children under the age of 13 is considered punishable in any case. This has been raised to under 16 in principle in the recent draft.

    It was also decided that the statute of limitations should be extended by five years, and that in cases where the victim is a minor, the period until they turn 18 years old -- the age of majority in Japan -- would also be added to the total number of years until the statute of limitations runs out. Luring children to places to sexually assault them would also be added as a punishable offense, while the ministry also plans to establish provisions to punish camera voyeurism and sending images and video to multiple people.

    Despite these measures, some observers have called the draft insufficient. The problem is that it fails to establish a separate criminal category for sexual activity without consent. Though this principle has been adopted in Sweden, the U.K., Germany and other countries, there were many at the Legislative Council subcommittee meeting opposed to doing the same in Japan, citing the difficulty of proving lack of consent.

    Sexual abuse victim groups fear that "as long as 'difficulty rejecting sexual advances' is set as the criteria, nothing will change from how the law is administered now."

    There must not be cases where sexual crimes are overlooked and perpetrators evade punishment due to flaws in the legal system. The reality must be faced squarely and discussion be deepened. It is also crucial to educate and raise awareness to prevent people from committing sexual violence themselves, as well as stopping others. Society as a whole must work to root out sex crimes.

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