Protesters are demanding urgent reforms to Japan’s outdated rape laws as rape complaints are met with impunity, while sexual harassment and groping are rife.

Anger is mounting in Japan as activists and lawyers are warning that the criminal code, which dates back over a century, is incapable of dealing with growing sexual abuse in the country.

The protests come in response to a court sentence that allowed a man to walk free despite sexually assaulting his daughter for years.

According to the court finding, the man had sexually abused his child from around age 13 to 19 and even acknowledged he was violent when she resisted. The reason for his acquittal? A 112-year law that requires prosecutors to prove there was overwhelming force, a threat, or that the victim was completely incapacitated.

"When the criminal code was created in 1907, Japan was purely patriarchal," lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda told AFP.

Draconian legislature

Although legislators revised Japan’s century-old rape law in 2017 to include harsher penalties, the definition of rape remains unchanged. Victims would no longer be required to press charges themselves for the offender to be prosecuted, and the minimum sentence would be raised to five years imprisonment from three - equivalent to the minimum sentence for robbery. 

The revised law also dropped a requirement that sexual abuse by parents or guardians against minors under the age of 18 should involve “violence or intimidation” to be considered a crime. 

The reforms left intact controversial requirements for prosecutors to prove that violence or intimidation was involved or that the victim was “incapable of resistance”. Additionally, the age of consent in Japan is 13 years old. 

Recent acquittals have revived outrage over that legal standard, which means that not fighting back can make it impossible for prosecutors to prove rape.

Some lawyers say prison sentences and compensation fail to adequately reflect victims’ sufferings — a sign that rape continues to be viewed lightly in Japan’s male-dominated society. 

Protesters and activists have been campaigning for greater reform in Japan’s rape laws. The proposed revisions would broaden the definition of rape, now limited to vaginal penetration by a penis, to a more inclusive “forced sexual intercourse” that includes forced anal and oral sex, thereby also recognizing males as possible victims.

Protective silence

“Talking about sex or even rape in Japan is taboo and we have quite a strong stigma in Japan,” journalist Shiuri Ito said in an interview with Scandinavian talk show host Skavlan. 

This stigma is so pervasive and society’s attitudes to rape victims so chilly, that many remain silent from shame or fear of criticism. Ito felt the sting of this stigma acutely when she went public about her alleged rape by a popular broadcast journalist. 

“I got some threats, death threats and quite negative comments,” Ito recounted in the interview with Skavlan. 

Less than 5 percent of women who were forced to have sexual intercourse consulted the police, according to government data for 2014. Even tellingly, only about one-third spoke to anyone, including friends.

Rhetoric is also a means of perpetuating stigma. Japan’s top government spokesman in 2003 was quoted as telling reporters in an off-the-record briefing that some women were asking to be raped by dressing provocatively — a remark that outraged many but failed to dent his political clout.

Rape investigations can also be intrusive. Ito, in her interview with Skavlan, recollects having to re-enact her rape with a large doll. Critics have said this procedure amounts to a second rape. 

Legislation since 2004 allows women to seek restraining orders against husbands who are not only physically abusive but who inflict sexual abuse, including forced sex.

Source: TRT World