Amendments to the nation’s sex crime laws went into effect Thursday — heralding progress for victims and their supporters but highlighting the many hurdles that remain.
The revisions to the Penal Code, the first in more than a century, expanded the acts that constitute rape. Previously limited only to vaginal penetration by a penis, the legal definition now includes forced anal and oral sex, meaning men can be rape victims.
Minimum sentences have ratcheted up to five years from three. Moreover, authorities can prosecute offenses such as rape and indecent assault even if the victim does not come forward to file a formal complaint.
Adults who take advantage of their custodial roles as guardians to sexually abuse children under age 18 will face rape and indecent assault charges, and with the recent revisions to the law, prosecution in such cases will be exempt from establishing a prerequisite of “violence and intimidation” to convict sex offenders.
Hiromi Nakano, head of Shiawase Namida (Happy Tears), a Tokyo-based group fighting sex abuse, said that while the revisions are a historic step forward, many problems remain, including the way the police conduct investigations.
“A big issue in Japan is the police’s initial response,” she said. “In many other countries, police make sure that a victim receives medical treatment while physical evidence is collected … so the victim’s visit to the police can lead to an arrest.”
In Japan, police officers often don’t realize the importance of timely collection of biological evidence such as body hair and semen and sending victims to hospitals right away, Nakano said. This puts the burden on victims to know their legal rights and remind the officers of appropriate procedure, she said.
In 2014, prosecutors filed charges in 448 sex crime cases out of 1,290 sent to them by police. Charges were dropped or suspended in 755 cases and suspects were sent to family courts in 87 cases, according to the Justice Ministry.
The cases booked by police are just the tip of the iceberg. Only 31.6 percent of sex crime victims talk about their experience, and just 4.3 percent go to police, according to a 2014 Cabinet Office survey of 5,000 women and men over age 20. Shame was cited as the top reason victims keep quiet, the survey showed.
The Penal Code now includes a supplementary clause that says the measures on sex crimes will go under review in three years to make any updates to the law in line with actual cases.