Belatedly, but at long last, Japan has taken a tough stand against child prostitution and pornography. A new law banning the sexual abuse of minors came into effect on Monday. The “law for prohibition of child prostitution” makes it a criminal offense for anyone in Japan, and any Japanese traveling overseas, to pay for sexual intercourse with children under 18. It also bans the production, distribution and sale of pornographic materials featuring children.

Offenders will face up to three years in jail and a fine of up to 1 million yen. The novelty of this new antiprostitution law is that it puts the blame squarely on the adult perpetrators and stresses the importance of treating the minors involved primarily as victims whose rights must be protected and whose future welfare must be taken into account.

The prime purpose of the new law is to strengthen existing legislation against prostitution, particularly the rampant practice of “enjo kosai” (the euphemistic term for schoolgirl prostitution). It is also designed to strengthen control of the notorious “sex tours” favored by some Japanese men, whose main purpose in visiting a foreign (mostly neighboring Asian) country is to indulge in sex with local prostitutes.

Another purpose is to mend Japan’s reputation as the child-pornography capital of the world. According to Interpol, up to 80 percent of all the videos and magazines that show pornographic images of children originate in Japan. Indeed, a world forum held in Sweden in August 1996 censured Japan for its lax antichild prostitution law and for allowing itself to become an export center for juvenile pornographic materials.

Nongovernmental organizations, both overseas and in Japan, were the first to take the matter to the Japanese government and the Japanese public. UNESCO and the Japanese arm of the “End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism” campaign, an NGO based in Bangkok, have been instrumental in mobilizing public opinion and lobbying the Diet for legislative action. The increased presence of female members in both houses of the Diet also helped keep the child sexual-exploitation and abuse issue alive in the male-dominated legislature.

The new law, enacted last May through a bill submitted by a suprapartisan group of legislators, is indeed an important step forward in providing the legal backup for law enforcement against sexual exploitation of minors. But it will take more than the addition of a new law to make a dent in Japanese permissiveness concerning pornography in general and child pornography in particular.

By inclination and tradition, most Japanese tend to view sexual exploitation of women and children as a benign evil. Even though prostitution has long been illegal, the proliferation of “fuzoku” (the Japanese word for “public custom,” but it is best read as “sex”) business involving young and increasingly younger women is evident everywhere.

In all the big cities, the size and number of red-light districts are almost proportional to the local population. In rural areas, most small towns have their own cluster of “soaplands,” the Japanese euphemism for brothels. The new law defining the age of protected minors as children under 18 is, therefore, particularly significant.

While child pornography in its most obscene and grotesque form is revolting to most people, the depiction of scantily dressed young girls engaged in provocative acts is deemed to be legitimate entertainment, as shown by its prevalence on late-night television shows. Indeed, both supporters and critics of the new law complain that the definition of child pornography lacks clarity. But, as people say, this is a cultural thing.

The advent of the Internet age has given the problem a new dimension. With the Internet, child pornography has become a global concern, making it untenable for Japan to maintain its indifference in the face of international censure. However, the spread of cyber-pornography has made it all the more difficult to track and punish perpetrators. Furthermore, the new law, which bans the distribution and sale of child pornography but not possession of such material, will not eliminate the obnoxious practice.

Against this backdrop of the cyber-driven spread of pornography and public complacency, it is too early to say how the new law will work. One thing is certain: It is up to the public to pressure the government to continue the campaign and to change its own attitude. After all, child prostitution and pornography are not just a matter of unsavory international reputation; they reflect the values of our own society.

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