When the government unveiled a three-year plan to enhance measures against sex crimes and sexual violence last month, childhood abuse survivor Jun Yamamoto found the announcement uncharacteristically human and reassuring.

She felt that Seiko Hashimoto, minister in charge of gender equality, had gone out of her way to acknowledge the so-called Flower Demo — a monthly demonstration held by sexual violence survivors that has evolved into a nationwide movement over the past year — in her statement detailing the new policy.

The Flower Demo, the minister said, had underlined “growing public calls for the eradication of sexual crimes and violence,” piling pressure on the government to “respond to their desperate voices head-on, and hammer out concrete policies to eliminate the insanity that is sexual violence.”

The language was unusual compared with other, more detached government statements, Yamamoto said.

“Government announcements tend to be full of bureaucratic formalities and unemotional, but I found this one particularly encouraging because it made it clear sexual crimes and violence were unforgivable, and that our voices had been heard,” said Yamamoto, the head of Spring, a civic group of survivors of sexual violence.

Among measures considered in the new three-year plan is the possible mandatory monitoring of paroled sex offenders via GPS tracking, more comprehensive sex education in schools and stricter penalties, including dismissal, for teachers who commit obscene acts. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has touted female empowerment as a pillar of its growth strategy, is expected to include the plan in its annual economic policy blueprint set to be compiled later this month.

Fighting injustice

Not only was the newly unveiled plan a response to the recent groundswell of public sentiment, it was also a follow-up to revisions in 2017 to Japan’s sex crime laws, which came with supplementary provisions stipulating the government revisit the issue within three years. A series of amendments implemented in 2017 represented the first overhaul of the country’s sex crime statutes in more than a century.

Some of the key changes included redefining rape to recognize not only vaginal penetration but forced anal and oral sex, lengthening prison terms for rape and establishing a new penalty for abusers who have taken advantage of their “guardianship” over children aged under 18, including parents.

Yamamoto, who herself was molested by her father from the age of 13 to 20, said these revisions have at least contributed to the partial easing of suffering by sexual abuse survivors. The last three years also coincided with the advent of the #MeToo movement, which made headlines both at home and abroad.

The #MeToo movement has added impetus to the fight against sexual violence in Japan. | KYODO
The #MeToo movement has added impetus to the fight against sexual violence in Japan. | KYODO

Still, that is not to say survivors have had it easy. In fact, the reason the Flower Demo was initiated in the first place was to protest against a litany of court rulings in March last year that acquitted defendants of rape and quasi-rape charges.

In one of these cases, the Okazaki branch of the Nagoya District Court handed down a not-guilty verdict to a man who molested his teen daughter for years, on the grounds that while sex was not consensual, it could not be established that he took advantage of her “inability to resist” — a prerequisite for quasi-rape charges.

The court’s rationale was that her attempts in the past to fight off his advances, coupled with the fact she was working part-time to flee his clutches and live alone, suggested she had some ability to resist her tormentor.

“I felt I didn’t want to be in this country anymore,” Yamamoto said, recalling the devastation she felt at the series of not guilty verdicts that prompted the Flower Demo. Some of these controversial rulings were later overturned by higher courts, including the Nagoya case, with the father sentenced to 10 years in prison as demanded by the prosecution earlier this year.

Courts in Japan have historically used the practice of making sexual assault survivors re-tell and re-enact their abuses. | REUTERS
Courts in Japan have historically used the practice of making sexual assault survivors re-tell and re-enact their abuses. | REUTERS

While Japan has made headway in modernizing its sex crime laws, Yamamoto says a number of challenges remain.

One of them is an entrenched investigative practice by the police and prosecutors that involves victims of sex crimes retelling their experiences over and over again, and sometimes even re-enacting their assaults with life-size dolls — a routine once slammed by international organization Human Rights Watch as “abusive, unnecessary, and retraumatizing.”

Yamamoto said she has long been calling for a rethink of this “extremely excruciating” investigative process, but her pleas fell on deaf ears in the latest policy reassessment, she said.

Uncharted waters

Among the most divisive measures envisioned by the new policy is the possible GPS monitoring of convicted sex offenders on parole. The government, the policy said, will spend the next two years studying overseas examples and assessing the effectiveness against recidivism in determining whether to introduce such a system.

Although adopted by neighboring South Korea and some Western democracies, GPS surveillance of sex offenders is uncharted territory for Japan.

The 2004 kidnapping and murder in Nara Prefecture of a 7-year-old girl by Kaoru Kobayashi — a pedophile with a repeated history of sexually abusing children — has paved the way for the Justice Ministry to share with the police key information such as when high-risk sex offenders will be released and where they will settle after serving their time.

But talk of mandating GPS tracking of offenders has essentially been taboo in Japan, said Sakura Kamitani, a lawyer well-versed in sex crime cases.

“Under the logic that it will impinge on offenders’ human rights and privacy, no national discussions have ever even been initiated on this matter,” Kamitani said. “Any mention of support for GPS has been met with a kind of hysteria, and has resulted in being roundly criticized for saying it.”

Among the most divisive measures envisioned by a new policy on sex crimes is the possible GPS monitoring of convicted sex offenders on parole. | REUTERS
Among the most divisive measures envisioned by a new policy on sex crimes is the possible GPS monitoring of convicted sex offenders on parole. | REUTERS

At a municipal level, Miyagi Prefecture once tried in vain to enact an ordinance that would have obliged those with a record of sexual offenses to wear GPS devices.

Kamitani, for her part, has been one of the few who hasn’t shied away from proclaiming the need for GPS monitoring.

“Some sex offenders want to stop but simply can’t,” she said. “They are convinced that they will do it again if released, sometimes begging to be monitored by GPS to deter themselves.”

But the extent to which GPS monitoring can prevent offenders from relapsing has not been fully established in experiments overseas, said psychiatrist Hiroki Fukui, who heads nonprofit organization Sex Offenders Medical Center.

The use of such devices is also costly and seen as less effective against incestuous abuse, with which assaults can happen without the abusers leaving home. Being able to keep tabs on parolees’ whereabouts, Fukui said, is different from knowing what they do in those places, meaning law enforcement may not be aware of their acts of violence in real time.

“The oversimplified image of GPS tracking as an effective surveillance tool that mobilizes police quickly and serves as a deterrent against offenders’ urges is at odds with the reality,” he said.

Moreover, initiating steps toward such digital surveillance flies in the face of the global shift away from it, Fukui said.

“The idea that stiffening penalties for offenders or making them wear GPS devices can curb recidivism is out-of-date,” he said, instead stressing the need for investing better in pharmaceutical and cognitive behavioral therapies for offenders, as well as rehabilitative efforts to help them find jobs or provide them with vocational training.

Poor sexual literacy

Another linchpin of the new policy is to boost sex and human rights education to teach students not to be perpetrators or bystanders when it comes to sexual violence.

Under the new policy, schools will be encouraged to educate preteen children on the importance of not showing off or letting others touch “private zones” of their bodies they would normally hide with swimsuits.

Junior high and high school students will be made aware of the concept of “dating violence” and told that relationships of intimacy don’t justify any proprietary attitude toward partners. High schoolers and those in higher education will learn about the danger of date rape drugs, sexual harassment and rape coupled with taking advantage of intoxication.

Asuka Someya, head of nonprofit sex education organization Pilcon, hailed the enhanced programs on sexual violence as a “step forward” in a nation that has long maintained a conservative attitude toward sex education in schools.

Japan, Someya says, lags behind its East Asian peers such as China, South Korea and Taiwan in updating its approaches toward sex education in accordance with guidance compiled by UNESCO.

Sex education for school children in Japan has been described as lagging far behind that of other East Asian countries. | REUTERS
Sex education for school children in Japan has been described as lagging far behind that of other East Asian countries. | REUTERS

Today, only a modicum of time — an average three hours a year — is spent teaching junior high school students about sex-related matters in Japan, she said.

Backwardness pervades curriculum guidelines for junior high schools, attended by students age 12 to 15. Words such as “sex” and “sexual intercourse” are not officially endorsed by these education ministry guidelines, which instead recommend the euphemism “sexual contact.” Condoms only get a perfunctory mention as a possible tool against sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, with practical details, such as how to use them properly or where to get them, omitted.

The relegation of birds-and-bees education in Japan today is a holdover from the early 2000s, when conservative politicians decried what they characterized as a “radical” sex education program by a Tokyo school for children with disabilities that involved the use of dolls with genitals.

In March 2018, the issue was revisited by Toshiaki Koga, a Tokyo assemblyman for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who spearheaded the backlash against open sex education in the early 2000s.

At an assembly session, Koga slammed recent classes held by a junior high school in Adachi Ward as “inappropriate” and too advanced for the students, noting how its teachers demonstrated the way condoms should be used and birth-control pills accessed.

A Tokyo Metropolitan Government official also joined the assemblyman in criticizing the Adachi school for tackling topics such as abortion and contraception — both of which are designated by the guidelines as off-limits for junior high school classes. According to a 2018 survey by the board of education in Tokyo, 91 percent of all public junior high schools in the capital are giving these subjects a wide berth.

Behind the conservative approach to sex education is “the concern that teaching concrete details may sexually awaken students and send out the wrong message that they’re free to engage in sexual intercourse as long as it’s protected,” Someya said.

But in an age where children are just a few clicks away from sexual content on the internet, this rationale not only misses the point, but is potentially detrimental to well-being, Someya says.

Due to the scarce education in schools, “boys in particular rely on porn videos as their de facto textbooks for sex, with the result that some of them are mistakenly convinced the kind of abusive, one-sided sex portrayed in these films is the standard practice,” she said.

“It is the common understanding overseas that the more details children are taught about prevention, the more cautious their sexual behavior will become,” Someya added. “What’s needed is sex education that gives them practical knowledge that they can apply to their real lives.”

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