A rare example of political unity occurred in the Diet last week. Twelve lawmakers from seven political parties and groups put aside their usual differences and together submitted to the Upper House a long-anticipated bill to strengthen the legal protection of minors from sexual exploitation. In doing so at last they kept a promise to the nation’s children that has been too long in coming. The bill has suffered setbacks and been subjected to compromises since it was first proposed two years ago, but passage now seems assured in the current Diet session.

That means Japan appears set to finally join most of the rest of the industrialized world in enacting legislation that targets child pornography and prostitution involving minors and imposes penalties on offenders. It may be only coincidental that the action comes in the year marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but its delay is an indication of the widespread public indifference in this country to the concept that children have any specific rights at all.

The publicity campaign against child sexual exploitation conducted by the government from late in 1996, mainly through posters prominently displayed in busy urban centers, appears to have played some role in increasing public awareness of the need to end this type of abuse. Pressure from abroad, however, may have played an even greater role. It is a sad commentary on the lack of legal protections for minors here that little has been done to meet the demand from foreign law-enforcement agencies for police action against the growing volume of child pornography on the Internet that originates in Japan.

This country was described as a “distribution center” for pornography involving minors at an international conference in Stockholm three years ago. Some 14 countries have reported to the National Police Agency on cases of Japanese child pornography on the Internet. Last year, 41 recommendations for action against domestic distributors of such smut were received through Interpol, more than double the number in the previous year, yet arrests have been rare. Until now, however, the main legal tool of the police here was the Child Welfare Law, which required that producers of child pornography be caught in the act of filming or photographing.

One compelling demonstration of the need for the new legislation is the NPA’s estimate that as many as 3,000 Japanese home pages contained pornographic material as of the end of 1997, and that 40 percent of it involved images of minors, including young children. Under the proposed law, child pornography is defined as photographs, motion pictures, videotape images and other materials displaying minors engaged in sexual acts. Curiously, such depictions in “manga,” or comics form, for which Japan is notorious, were dropped from the new bill, although they were included in the version submitted to the Lower House last year.

At that time, opposition to the proposed new legislation came from several quarters, notably the magazine industry, on the grounds that it would violate the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression. Those essential rights of a civilized society have sometimes been abused in this country, especially in cases involving so-called “adult” materials intended solely for personal use. It is difficult to envision any situation, however, under which the sexual exploitation of children could be considered deserving of constitutional protection.

It is that type of misguided thinking that has encouraged the proliferation of incidents of “enjo kosai,” or compensated dating, a euphemism for teenage prostitution even in those cases where actual sexual intercourse does not take place. The lawmakers who submitted the bill last week acknowledged several compromises from the original version. A major one is that mere possession of child pornography without intent to sell is no longer subject to criminal punishment. Another is the addition of a clause stating that implementation of the law must not unreasonably infringe on the public’s rights.

Indeed, it should not. But giving or promising money to young people under the age of 18 to engage in sexual acts with adults and the production, sale, distribution and export/import of visual materials depicting children performing such acts are not inherent rights in any society. The maximum penalties demanded by the bill for what will now be legally established as crimes are only a 1 million yen fine or imprisonment for three years. Time will be needed to tell if they are sufficient. The bill is at least a start in protecting the rights of Japan’s children.

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