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Sexually suggestive photographs and videos of female athletes taken surreptitiously during competitions in Japan have been circulating on the internet, with no sign of letting up.

In the runup to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, police have started taking action against such images, while sporting organizations have also launched countermeasures. But laws and regulations are still behind the curve.

Numerous photographs and videos of female athletes are being posted on the internet along with descriptions such as "erotic sports images" and "bloopers on TV."

"This is a problem that has existed from old times. The wider use of smartphones has made it easy to take such shots. As it is also no trouble to spread (them) on the internet, the damage is now very serious," said Akio Ishii, manager of the planning department of the Japan Association of Athletic Federations.

Harassment via these exploitative images reared its ugly head when multiple women reported the resulting trauma to the association and sought advice last year. Seven sporting organizations, including the Japanese Olympic Committee, issued a joint statement in November stressing the need for preventive efforts.

Some athletes were too traumatized to continue competing, prompting further measures by sporting bodies.

At a competition it hosted in June, the association set up a hotline with a QR code so people could report sightings of dubious photography or filming to the event organizers. And at the forthcoming Tokyo Games, suspected filming and photography of a sexual nature will be banned at competition venues.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, speaks during a media tour at the athletes village for the Tokyo Games on June 20. Suspected filming and photography of a sexual nature will be banned at competition venues. | BLOOMBERG
Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, speaks during a media tour at the athletes village for the Tokyo Games on June 20. Suspected filming and photography of a sexual nature will be banned at competition venues. | BLOOMBERG

In May and June, Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department arrested two men on suspicion of using TV footage of female athletes on pornographic websites without permission, in violation of the copyright law.

Despite such actions, however, related laws and regulations still need to catch up.

Japan's Penal Code has no provision that defines secret photography and filming as crimes, while nuisance prevention ordinances of local governments mainly cover surreptitious shooting of nudity and people in underwear.

In a report published in May, a Justice Ministry criminal law study panel on sexual offenses said it was difficult to make a clear distinction between legal and illegal acts regarding the photographing and filming of athletes in uniform.

There are examples of law-enforcement actions on suspicion of defamation. But Naonori Ando, a lawyer versed in sports-related legal affairs, said, "If the athletes themselves have to file a criminal complaint, that puts a psychological burden on them and is time-consuming."

Some experts attribute the spread of voyeuristic photographs and videos to media attitudes when it comes to sports reporting.

"Media have often used pictures of smiling athletes, rather than photos of athletes in action, in an attempt to attract attention," said Josai University professor Eriko Yamaguchi, a specialist on links between sports and gender.

"This approach has had a big impact in fostering a culture of expecting 'lovableness' in competitors and not looking at them as athletes," she said.

Ando points to some media outlets' tendency to idolize athletes as a factor behind the problem.

"In presenting athletes, media have focused on their gender, using expressions such as 'too beautiful,'" Ando said. "The whole of society needs to consider how to communicate sports and how to watch (them)."

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