Two recent domestic cases involving sexual assault illustrate just how far the land of the rising sun is from dealing with crimes against women.
Many Americans expressed outrage when former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was released from prison after spending three months behind bars for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
In Japan, Turner would most likely have never been arrested. If prosecutors were able to secure a conviction, it’s also highly likely he would not have spent a day behind bars. Rape prosecutions in Japan are fairly rare and even if a suspect is found guilty, many dodge prison by apologizing and paying damages.
Earlier this year, 22-year-old actor Yuta Takahata was arrested on charges of allegedly raping a 49-year-old hotel worker. Police said Takahata had asked the woman to bring him a toothbrush and then dragged her into his room around 2 a.m. on Aug. 23. He allegedly pinned her down during the attack.
Takahata was released on bail on Sept. 9 after prosecutors decided not to pursue charges over the incident. Takahata reportedly admitted raping the woman, according to police and Japanese media reports. However, Takahata is believed to have subsequently agreed on a settlement with the victim and prosecutors dropped the case. Once he had been freed, Takahata’s lawyers released a statement implying that they would have denied the charges if the case had gone to court.
Kunitaka Kasai, a criminal defense lawyer from Rei Law Office in Tokyo, says it’s always difficult to know the exact reasons why prosecutors drop charges in a case.
“But if a case has been settled out of court, it would be unprecedented for prosecutors to proceed with the case,” Kasai says. “Most settlements usually have the following text included: ‘I (the victim) do not wish him (the assailant) to face criminal punishment.’ This greatly discourages the authorities from pursuing the case.”
In Japan, rape (without injury) is categorized as shinkokuzai, an offence that cannot be prosecuted without a complaint by the victim. If a complaint is not made, or later retracted, the case falls apart.
Kazuko Tanaka, a female prosecutor and author of “The Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigation Handbook,” estimates that only 4 percent of victims of sexual assault go so far as to file a complaint with the police.
By comparison, the Justice Ministry estimated in 2012 that only 18.5 percent of sexual assaults were reported to the police over a five-year period. In incidents that had featured an arrest, prosecutors dropped charges in more than half of the cases on average.
Legal experts note that first-time offenders often walk away with a suspended sentence — even if they are convicted.
Take, for example, the case of Kensuke Matsumi, a University of Tokyo student who was convicted of sexually assaulting a classmate with several of his friends in May. The victim rejected his offer of a settlement.
On Sept. 20, the Tokyo District Court ruled that Matsumi’s actions were “despicable and caused unbearable suffering.” However, the 22-year-old student received a sentence of two years in prison, suspended for four years, because he had expressed remorse for his actions and had vowed to refrain from ever drinking alcohol again.
On Sept. 12, a Justice Ministry advisory panel recommended that sex crime legislation be revised. The panel recommended that prosecutors should be allowed to indict a suspect regardless of whether a complaint had been filed or not. It also concluded that the minimum penalty for rape convictions should be raised from three years in prison to five, and recommended that police also be empowered to acknowledge male victims of rape.
Japan appears to have a serious problem with sexual assault it doesn’t want to face. Even if the lower estimated number of unreported cases is accepted — more than 80 percent — it’s still a colossal figure.
“We can conduct great criminal investigations but if we don’t create an environment where women can come forward and press charges, what are we doing?” Tanaka asks in her handbook.
The government likes to talk about empowering women and creating a society in which women can “shine.” Yet, how powerful can women be in a society where convicted rapists are able to walk away without spending a day behind bars? Is an apology and financial compensation sufficient punishment for sexual assault? Perhaps these are the first questions the government should be asking.
Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.