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Japan’s Outdated Sexual Assault Laws Are Leading to Unjust Rape Acquittals

According to a century-old Japanese law, a crime isn’t considered rape unless the woman tried to fight back.

by Edoardo Liotta
11 June 2019, 10:21am

#MeToo rally in Tokyo, 2018. Source: Reuters.

Recent rape acquittals in Japan have resurfaced long-standing criticism of Japan’s outdated rape laws. In a plea for change, activists have been gather monthly for demonstrations in which they hold flowers as a form of solidarity.

One law that is strongly contested was implemented in 1907 with a series of other legislative changes, and states that women need to prove they fought back during an assault for it to be considered rape.

While other laws to do with assault were amended in 2017 to make penalties harsher and expand the definition of rape, this one archaic law still stands today.

In Japan’s current legal system, a woman has to prove she resisted an assault, or inflicted injuries or wounds for an incident to be considered rape.

Hiroko Goto, a law professor at Chiba University told SBS that in rape trials, “the judge will expect you to show you reacted. For example, thrashing around if you’re pinned down. Or desperately trying to push away.” and that, “if you didn’t cry out for help, it’s assumed you consented.”

However, different psychological responses mean rape survivors all react in different ways. Miyako Shirakawa told Reuters that when she was raped at 19, her body froze completely and her mind blanked. She is now a psychiatrist who helps survivors of sexual abuse, and she explained that freezing up is a “common, instinctive reaction⁠ - it's a form of psychological self-protection."

A series of alarming rape acquittals have made the matter more pressing. One of which took place in March, when a father was acquitted of raping his 19-year-old daughter by a court in Nagoya, Japan. Although the court found that the father was guilty of raping his daughter, the court couldn’t decide on whether the girl could have resisted. Lawyer Tomoko Murata told Reuters that "The verdict was extremely strict about proving psychological incapacity to resist."

Women in Japan have long struggled to build solid cases for rape, largely due to the legal framework. A 2016 survey by the Japan Institute of Labor found that almost 35% of staff employees had experienced sexual harassment, and of those, more than 60% did not report it.

Maki Mizui, an actress and director, survived a kidnapping and assault a decade ago when she was a teenager. She had been abducted and held hostage for an entire night. Speaking on her assault, Mizui told VICE in 2017 that “he talked to me all night and touched me. I think that's sexual assault, but in Japan it's not considered so, and people actually tell me, ‘I'm glad you were safe.’”

Mizui was released the next day, and immediately called the police. "I assumed when I called them they would take care of everything for me,” she said. But because she lived on the border between two jurisdictions, police from both ends continuously bounced her case around without a response. Three months later she returned and tried to file a report, but again, police never followed up.

Three years later, her attacker was finally arrested, only after committing similar offences with three other girls.

In recent months, Japan has made the headlines multiple times for its struggle to deal with the prevalence of sexual assault in the country.

In January, a weekly men’s magazine published a list of local universities where women were more likely to be “sexually easy” when intoxicated. The same magazine had previously published articles on which alcohol would make women more likely to sleep with you and guides on how to identify “easy women.”

And most recently, the widespread popularity of an anti-harassment app called Digi Police has highlighted the scale of Japan’s problem with sexual assault. The app allows users being assaulted to display a message of help that can be shown to other commuters, or it can loudly play the word “stop it” through the phone's speakers. Since it’s release three years ago, the app has been downloaded over 237,000 times. Police officials told the Guardian that downloads were increasing by 10,000 every month, which is unusually high for a public service app.

Despite these horrifying laws, it is comforting to recognise that more women are coming forth to talk about their experiences and to rally for change. In particular, the #MeToo movement resonated with Japanese women, and their combined voices resulted in many men who had committed acts of sexual misconduct finally being forced to step down from positions of power. With these recent rape acquittals we are reminded that there is still a long way to go, but the demonstrations are proof that until change is made, people will not stop fighting.

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