The nation took the first significant step in more than a century Wednesday toward revamping its outdated sex crime laws with a Lower House committee’s unanimous passing of a package of amendments, including one that broadens the definition of what constitutes rape.
The proposed revision passed by the Lower House’s Judicial Affairs Committee has the support of both ruling and opposition camps and is expected to proceed smoothly through a plenary session of the more powerful chamber on Thursday.
Whether the revised bills will be enacted into law within this ongoing legislative session remains uncertain, with just a little over a week remaining until the Diet’s scheduled wrap-up on June 18 and the current focus overwhelmed by escalating debates over allegations of favoritism leveled against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I believe the public interest in the amendments is high. We don’t have much time left, but I do hope the Upper House will find the time to deliberate them in a thorough manner,” Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said after the vote.
Among changes under consideration is an expanded definition of rape — which under current statutes is limited to vaginal penetration by a penis — to include forced anal and oral sex. The revision also recognizes males as being possible victims of rape.
Other proposals include raising minimum sentences for rape to five years from the current three years, and for rape resulting in death or injury to six years from the current five year minimum.
With the proposed updates to the law, sex crimes such as rape and indecent assault will be prosecutable even if the victims do not file a complaint. A new penalty will be added to the books against adults who take advantage of their “guardianship” roles and sexually abuse children under age 18. The law is aimed at preventing incest and child abuse by parents and guardians.
Wednesday marks the first time the sex crime statutes, originally enacted in 1907, have been revisited.
On the same day, opposition lawmakers slammed the ruling coalition over the rush to pass the contentious conspiracy bill. They say the push for the controversial bill could effectively endanger their enactment of the revised sex crime laws.
While both ruling and opposition lawmakers expressed support for the broadened definition of rape, the intended revision may still not fully live up to expectations of victims.
Under the current system, offenders can avoid punishment unless it is established that they resorted to “violence and intimidation” in assaulting their victims. The rationale behind this is the lack of violence on the part of offenders indicates victims didn’t put up a fight — therefore, the sex was consensual.
Victims argue that lack of resistance is no proof that they gave consent, but rather points to the fact they simply “froze” out of fear or to avoid further provoking their attackers.
Prosecutor-turned-lawmaker Shiori Yamao, of the main opposition Democratic Party, said this prerequisite has deterred many women from seeking justice over the years, citing a 2014 court ruling by the Tokyo High Court that acquitted a 25-year-old man of attacking a 15-year-old schoolgirl.
Yamao quoted the ruling as determining the girl was at fault for not fighting hard enough because, judging from the way their bodies were positioned during the intercourse, “she could have run away only if she had kicked her legs in the air.”
Justice Ministry official Makoto Hayashi said the ministry is well aware of the types of reactions victims tend to show upon facing rapists, and insisted other objective factors — such as the time and location of the crime, the age and mental condition of victims and crime history of offenders — are being taken into account by courts in deciding whether offenders are guilty.
“So we don’t believe we’re in a situation where the lack of protest by victims alone wrongly exonerates rapists,” Hayashi said.
After the vote, four civil groups fighting sex abuse petitioned Kaneda for swiftly approving changes to the sex crime laws. Their online petition collected over 30,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
“The current Criminal Code was established more than 100 years ago by a legislature that had no female members, with little regard for the suffering of victims” the campaigners wrote.
“Now is finally a chance to break through the status quo.”