The move to revise the Civil Code to lower the age of adulthood to 18 from 20 is raising concerns that teenagers might fall victim to fraudsters.
Under current law, parents can cancel contracts signed by their children if the deals were sealed without their consent. But once the law is revised, this would no longer apply to 18- and 19-year-olds.
To reduce the risks of deception, the central and local governments have been beefing up consumer education for youths, but its effectiveness remains unclear.
For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s consumer center held 132 classes at schools last fiscal year to raise fraud awareness.
“We’ve received requests to conduct lectures on troubles related to the internet and social networking services,” an official at the center said. “The schools’ awareness on the issue has certainly changed.”
Consumer education is included in the teaching guidelines for elementary, junior high and high schools. During civics or home economics classes, students are taught about return policies for purchases and how to invest in financial products.
However, there are no classes or instruction devoted solely to consumer education, and it is up to each school to decide whether and how it will teach the subject.
The training of teachers on the subject also appears to be insufficient.
The education ministry’s 2013 survey found that only 15 percent of training sessions for elementary, junior high or high school teachers dealt with consumer education.
Shinzo Nakamura, vice chairman of the consumer affairs committee at Japan Federation of Bar Associations, who is opposed to the revision of the Civil Code, says lowering the age of majority is like “shipping unripe fruit” to market.
He said he has seen many young people become victims of fraud via contracts, particularly for those related to beauty treatments and online dating services.
In one case, a parent of a teenage girl consulted a consumer affairs center, saying she had been coerced into purchasing beauty products. “My daughter thought she made a trial purchase of a skin-care product, but it turned out it was registered as a periodic purchase,” said the parent. “And they told her she could not cancel it until she made at least four such purchases.”
Because parents can cancel such contracts under current law, fraudulent businesses tend to target those who turn 20, according to the National Consumer Affairs Center.
Between fiscal 2011 and 2015, consumer affairs centers nationwide averaged 11,000 requests annually for consultations from 18- and 19-year-olds. But the number of such requests received from 20- and 21-year-olds was 1.6 times higher, the center said.
“There were even cases where they were being lured from when they were still minors, and then being coerced into signing a contract on the day of their 20th birthday,” a Consumer Affairs Agency official said, describing the tricks used by swindlers who are well aware of the laws.
Once the age of adulthood is lowered, even if the content of a contract is found to be unreasonable, parents will not be able to cancel them.
“Some young people don’t even realize that they are being scammed,” said Hisa Anan, former secretary-general of the agency. “It’s important for them to have the ability to see through fraudulent businesses by themselves. The government should even consider making consumer education mandatory in schools.”
Still, Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said the time is ripe to lower the age of majority. “We’ve been working on measures to get ready for the change, and made certain progress,” Kaneda said at a news conference in August.
The government is expected to submit a bill to revise the Civil Code to the Diet as early as next year.
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