Harsher penalties for sex offenses

A bill now headed to the Diet will drastically amend the Penal Code’s provisions concerning rape and other sex crimes, imposing harsher penalties on the offenders, expanding the scope of victims to include males, and dropping a requirement that a victim must file a complaint in order for the prosecution to indict the alleged assailant. While the amendments should mark a major improvement for victims of sexual crimes, the government needs to do more to help heal victims’ psychological damage and to prevent recidivism by sex offenders.

Under the revision, the minimum jail term for rape will be raised from the current three years to five years, in response to criticism that the present minimum term is lighter than that for burglary, which is five years. If this change is enacted, it will be almost certain that a convicted rapist will have no chance of being given a suspended sentence since the Penal Code says in principle that a court can suspend a jail term if the crime merits three years or less in prison.

The current provisions, which were written 110 years ago during the Meiji era, assume that rape is only committed by men against women and require that a victim first file a compliant to effect the indictment of an alleged offender. The proposed amendments will pave the way for the prosecution of women on rape charges. It’s hoped that this reasonable change will help uncover cases in which males are the victims, which have thus far tended to be buried.

Eliminating the requirement of filing complaints will help reduce the psychological burden on victims since they will no longer have to go through the process of making public the fact that they have been raped — a process that has the effect of exacerbating their suffering and damaging their honor in the face of the prevalent social prejudice against the victims of sex crimes. Since some victims have opted not to file complaints out of fear of retaliation by their assailants, the requirement have often had the effect of letting offenders off the hook.

Even if the requirement is removed, victims will have to undergo detailed questioning by the police during the stage of the investigation to determine what happened at the crime scenes — since rape suspects can only be indicted after it is established that victims faced violence or threats that made their resistance extremely difficult. Victims also may face similar questioning in court. Since such procedures will be traumatic for them, the government should not think that the amendment will remove all the psychological burdens on the victims of sex crimes. It should consider concrete ways to help heal the psychological damage victims suffer not only from the crimes themselves but also from the investigation and trial processes.

The government also needs to heed victims’ opinions that rape can be committed even if the assailants do not use violence or threats to make victims’ resistance extremely difficult, as victims can experience a sense of extreme dread that makes it difficult for them to fend off their attackers. Although such views were submitted to the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice ministry, those opinions were not reflected in the outline of the amendment that the council submitted to Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda in September. The government should weigh such views in discussing further amendments to the law in the future.

Another key feature of the amendments is a clause covering domestic sexual abuse, which also tends to go unnoticed by people outside the families involved. Parents or guardians will be punished if they engage in sexual activities with children aged 17 or younger in their care even if the adults’ acts are not accompanied by violence or intimidation.

Although the amendment will mark a significant step forward for victims of sexual crimes, heavier penalties alone will not prevent such crimes. Since sex offenders tend to be recidivists, it is important to provide them with medical care and education both while they are imprisoned and after they have been released based on relevant expert knowledge. The national and local governments should help create networks of organizations and experts in both the public and private sectors to provide support to prevent recidivism. It will also be important for people at various levels of society, including parents and teachers, to make efforts to eradicate prejudice against the victims of sex crimes.