Japan Hasn't Updated Its Rape Laws Since 1907—But That Might Finally be Changing

The Asian country's conservative rape legislation has remained unchanged since the turn of the last century, but activists hope that new proposals signal a much-needed improvement.

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Mar 1 2017, 2:15pm

Photo courtesy of Tomorrow Girls Troop

Every year, people in Japan gather to celebrate Hinamatsuri (also known as Girls' Day), the traditional festival dedicated to young girls. Across the country, families mark the day by displaying dolls in their houses and praying for the good health and happiness of their daughters.

But March 3 will also go down in Japanese history this year for another reason. For the first time in a century, politicians will discuss proposed amendments to the rape and sexual assault legislation—the first significant changes since the code was first written in 1907. When the law was first created in Japan, women didn't even have the right to vote.

Former justice minister Midori Matsushima had promised tougher laws on sex crimes when she was elected in 2014, and her successor, Yoko Kamikawa, has picked up the baton and pushed the issue through to the Diet, the country's national legislature.

For activists and survivors, the potential changes have been a long time coming.

"The current law was designed to protect family honor, rather than the agency of the individual victim," Keiko Oota, a lawyer who works with victims of rape and domestic violence, explained during a free panel on sexual violence and the law. About 50 people attended the event on February 26 at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, an arts center in Akihabara, an area of Tokyo better known for its electronics shops.

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The talk was part of a series of pop-up events organized by Tomorrow Girls Troop, a Guerrilla Girls-style art and activism collective who had joined up with Tokyo-based advocates Rape Survivors Group to run a temporary feminist library at the space.

Maki Mizui, an actress and director who survived a traumatic kidnapping and sexual assault a decade ago, also spoke on the panel. Mizui was walking home alone in her quiet suburban neighborhood in Tokyo when she was abducted and attacked one evening. The then teenager heard sudden footsteps behind her before a man pressed a knife against her neck and said, "Be quiet, you don't want to get killed do you?" She was pushed into nearby bushes, where her hands and feet were tied and her mouth and eyes covered with duct tape.

Film still from "Ra", courtesy of Maki Mizui

Her attacker then dragged her to his car and abducted her. Mizui was assaulted and eventually endured an entire night with her kidnapper. "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 told Broadly before the panel. "I thought I was going to be killed."

In the morning, her attacker let her go. She fled home. The following day, she called 110, the Japanese emergency hotline. "I assumed when I called them they would take care of everything for me," Mizui said. Instead, she was told to report the crime to local police, but she lived on the border of two jurisdictions and was referred back and forth until she eventually gave up. She returned three months later to file a report, but police never followed up with her on the case.

The experience of the attack—and the knowledge that her kidnapper was still out there—left Mizui struggling with PTSD and panic attacks. "I really wanted him to be arrested," she said. "I was consumed by why he did it, why it was me."

Three years later, her attacker was eventually arrested after he had abducted and assaulted three other girls. Mizui, now in her 20s, told Broadly that she only recently realized the extent to which the system had failed her. In 2014, she wrote and directed a film based on her experience titled Ra ("Kept" in Japanese). Its message, Mizui said, was to tell women that rape and sexual assault was not their fault. "I really want to change the system now, and that's why I decided to make a film about it."

The law should protect the individual, not the family honor.

Last year, Tomorrow Girls Troop joined with three other women's organizations to raise public awareness of sexual violence and lobby the government to change existing rules on rape. After signing the campaign's Change.org petition calling on the country to improve its treatment of rape and sexual assault survivors, Mizui contacted Tomorrow Girls Troop to get involved with their campaign.

There are many Japanese films about abduction, Mizui explained, including one where the kidnapped victim eventually falls in love with her kidnapper, and another where the woman is killed and retribution is won by a male family member.

"I hate both of these kinds of films," Mizui says, pointing out that they perpetuate toxic narratives about violence. A spokesperson from Tomorrow Girls Troop says Mizui is the first female filmmaker in Japan to base her work on her own experience of sexual assault. "People who have survived similar experiences have related to the film. There's a lot of different ways you can reach out about these topics, but I like this approach because it reaches out to a wider public and people who might not know about it."

Keiko Oota told the audience at 3331 Arts Chiyoda that there are three major problems with the current legislation on sexual violence. Firstly, the definition of rape is limited to vaginal penetration—meaning oral and anal sex or penetration with foreign objects are considered to be indecent assault, with a lower minimum sentence of six months. The minimum sentence for rape is three years. (For comparison's sake, the sentence for burglary is five years.)


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Second, Oota explained, current legislation defines rape as a crime occurring between a man and a woman—meaning that male victims and women who have been raped by women are not protected by the law.

The third controversial aspect of the law on rape is the interpretation of consent: it stipulates that visible proof—by injury or wound—of resistance must be presented for the police to consider the crime as rape. Non-physical aggression, verbal threats, or attacks that do not leave behind physical marks are therefore not considered viable evidence.

It means that the role of coercion and manipulation in sexual abuse—especially abuse involving teenagers and young girls—is completely overlooked. Oota referred to a case in which an 18-year-old girl was raped by her golf coach after being told that sex would improve her mental strength and sports prowess. The situation is made more complex by the age of consent in Japan: Though local prefectures can and do set their own rules, the age set out in the country's penal code is 13, the lowest in any developed country

"Police do a lot to promote ways women can protect and defend themselves, but the underlying message there is that rape is something that happens, and, much like a natural disaster, we need to deal with it. That is at the root of the law and the court, too. First, we need to change this attitude towards sexual assault, and not accept that it is just something that happens," Oota said.

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Japan's legal approach to rape is also unique in that survivors must file a formal complaint in order to begin the process of prosecution. This puts the burden of justice on the victim and not the accused, which is complicated by the fact that the majority of survivors already know their assailant. Out of 30 rape cases she has worked on, Oota added, only one attacker was unknown to the victim.

Change does, however, finally seem possible. A member of Tomorrow Girls Troop told Broadly that a recent online survey on sexual violence that polled students at three major Tokyo universities is proof that ideas about consent have changed. The survey, led by women's organization Chabujo Group, presented people with six different scenarios—only one of which was legally defined by Japanese courts as rape—and asked them to pick the ones that they believed constituted non-consensual sex. The results showed that the overwhelming majority—98 percent—considered all of the situations to be forms of sexual violence.

Public opinion now needs to be reflected in the law, Oota told the crowd. The discrepancy between the reality of rape and its legal parameters must be addressed, and the amendments proposed by Kamikawa will revise the definition of rape to include oral and anal penetration, and will raise the minimum sentence from three to five years.

The fact that [change] is finally being discussed is a relief, but it's already late in the day.

"The law needs to change," Mizui said. "Too often the victim is blamed for what happened, and it is hard to speak out about what has happened when you are treated as evidence, rather than having your experience heard. There are so many ways that rape cannot be seen as rape by the law. The law should protect the individual, not the family honor."

After the discussion, the speakers invited the audience to take part in a performance inspired by the 70s anti-rape public art of Californian artist Suzanne Lacey. The group walked around the courtyard of the arts center in a show of solidarity, wearing masks designed by Tomorrow Girls Troop. The performance was aired by NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network.

"The fact that [change] is finally being discussed is a relief, but it's already late in the day," Oota said during the panel. Congress should announce its decision on the law by June, and activists are also hoping to also drive through further changes, such as alterations in the definition of consent.

Oota emphasized that people needed to join together to pressure Japanese politicians to ensure the changes to law were being followed through. "This might," she said, "be our only chance."

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