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In late July, it was reported that during a closed Consitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) meeting convened to discuss raising the age of consent from 13 to 16, lawmaker Hiranao Honda said that, as a man in his 50s, he thought it “strange” that he might be arrested if he had sex with a 14-year-old girl who consented to the relationship. The reaction was swift and harsh, and though the CDP punished Honda and planned to do something more in response to the public outrage, he quit the party and his seat.

On Aug. 9, Mainichi Shimbun published a feature that analyzed the Honda scandal. Currently, any adult who has sex with a child under the age of 13 is guilty of rape, but if the child is 13 or older they have to prove they could not resist the advances of the adult in order for the adult to be punished. Though Japan’s age of consent has remained the same for more than 110 years, the matter didn’t receive much attention until 2019 when a Nagoya District Court acquitted a man of raping his teenage daughter because she was over the age of consent. The Nagoya High Court later overturned the decision and gave the man a 10-year sentence, but as long as the age of consent remains as it is, it’s difficult to prosecute adults for having sex with teenagers.

In the article, Mainichi interviewed a woman in her 40s from western Japan. When her daughter was 13, the woman says, she was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. However, unlike with the Nagoya case, at the time the alleged abuse took place the father was not married to the mother. They were divorced.

The mother was granted sole custody of the couple’s two children, but permitted her ex-husband to visit with the daughter occasionally. After she heard that he was verbally abusive toward the daughter, she forbade any more contact. Then, a few years ago, when the daughter was 13, he asked if he could bring her to an event at his place of employment. The mother thought it would be OK since there would be many people around.

Afterward, she noticed her daughter acting strangely. It came out that, on the ride home, the ex-husband had touched her in a way that made her uncomfortable and tried to kiss her. The mother called the police, who told her that the girl, since she was above the age of consent, would have to prove she tried to resist if the ex-husband were to be convicted of sexual assault.

In 2017, the government expanded the scope of sex crime laws to include punishment for indecent acts toward persons under the age of 18 committed by parents or legal guardians, but since the mother was no longer married to the biological father of her daughter, there was legally no “parental” relationship between the two, so this new provision didn’t apply.

Nevertheless, the police summoned the ex-husband under suspicion of violating a local ordinance that prohibits sexual relationships when one of the parties is under 18. The father brushed off the accusation saying he was demonstrating normal paternal affection toward his daughter, implying there was nothing sexual about it. But even if the police had deemed the contact inappropriate, the only punishment would have been a fine.

A female prosecutor told the mother that under present law there was nothing they could do, and advised her to get her ex-husband formally to agree to never contacting the daughter again, which he did. The case was dropped. The mother is still angry and told the Mainichi that if the age of consent was higher, then the ex-husband could have been prosecuted as a sex offender. The daughter, meanwhile, remains traumatized and still receives counseling. The mother has asked the all-girl high school the daughter attends that she not be placed in any classes with male teachers.

The Mainichi article attempts to explain Honda’s thinking, since it is seen as indicative of the wider attitude toward sexual relations that has kept the age of consent at 13 for so long. This attitude holds that “sincere love” between an adult and an adolescent is “possible,” so such “exceptions” must be taken into account. The article also says that while Honda’s remark scandalized people, it at least led to open discussion of the topic.

In an Aug. 4 opinion piece for Asahi Shimbun, editor Akiko Okazaki condemns that analysis. She is “horrified” by the fact that the age of consent is still 13, especially in an environment where young people have become so vulnerable to sexual exploitation on the internet. According to a report released by the Justice Ministry in May, there is no consensus about the age of consent, presumably because circumstances and sensibilities differ from one case to another, so 13 is still considered an appropriate cut off age. France, for instance, just revised its own laws to make sex between a minor (under 16) and an adult not rape if the difference in age is five years or less.

Apart from the charge that adults, regardless of their “feelings,” automatically exert power over their partners when they have sexual relations with minors, Okazaki sees no coherence in Japan’s legal policy toward such interactions. Physical strife between husbands and wives was once considered part of the marital dynamic, but now it can qualify as domestic violence. What was once thought of as lighthearted innuendo around the office is now sexual harassment. When the age of consent was first codified in 1907, compulsory education stopped after six years of elementary school. By 13, many children were already working, but that’s not the case anymore. There’s no rationale, if there ever was one, to keeping the age of consent at 13.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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