A rush is on in this country at both the national and local levels to enact new laws and regulations aimed at controlling stalking. Where once it seemed that young women — the usual but not the exclusive victims of this activity — were expected to endure the terrifying harassment in silence, lawmakers and local officials now are vying to introduce new legal restrictions to prohibit it and punish offenders. Both houses of the Diet, local prefectural and municipal assemblies and regional police departments are all getting into the act.

The reason, of course, lies in recent high-profile cases, including some in which the victims were murdered by their tormentors despite their earlier pleas for police intervention and assistance. Public fears are hardly eased when the tabloid press and daytime television’s “wide shows” (so called because of the extensive range of topics they cover) probe every possible detail of these reprehensible acts for audiences that seem unable to receive their fill of the latest crime sensation. Stalkers have also been prominently featured in so-called “trendy” TV dramas.

Stalking ostensibly is regulated by the national Minor Offenses Act, but the penalties imposed are light and ineffective. The police have always required actual proof that an assault or threatening behavior has occurred. So the Diet has just passed antistalking legislation intended to correct those faults, and it appears to have some teeth in it.

The new law, which takes effect in late November, includes provisions for prison terms of up to six months or fines of up to 500,000 yen for any individual against whom a stalking complaint has been filed and who fails to stop the harassment after a police warning. The penalties can be doubled — up to one year in jail or fines of up to 1 million yen — for any stalker who then violates a desist order issued by a prefectural public safety commission.

Achieving a satisfactory legal definition of stalking could not have been easy. The new law tackles the task by describing a stalker as someone who repeatedly follows or harasses another person against whom the stalker carries a grudge that developed from an unrequited emotional attachment or obsession. It then for the first time lists eight specific prohibited activities, ranging from relentless surveillance to repeated nuisance telephone calls or fax messages, from the sending of repulsive objects to the victim to threatening the person being stalked with blackmail. The law’s effectiveness remains to be tested, however.

Critics are already charging that its definitions are too restricted and its various provisions susceptible to interpretations that are too broad and potentially lenient. All of the new law’s presumed benefits for stalking victims demand something that has been in short supply in recent months: careful and considerate attention by the police to complaints filed with them and their determined efforts to follow up on the cases.

Apparently aware of growing public dissatisfaction, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department will introduce to the metropolitan assembly next month a bill for an ordinance that would require the Tokyo police to take preventive steps in stalking incidents such as those that are outlined in the new law.

Municipal authorities elsewhere are taking their own measures to punish stalkers directly. Local antistalking ordinances took effect last month in Iwate and Miyazaki prefectures before the Diet acted. Prefectural assemblies in Chiba and Kagawa have added articles strengthening existing local laws, and in Niigata Prefecture the assembly plans to adopt an entirely new ordinance in August. An additional 15 prefectures are reported to have comparable local statutes under consideration.

Supporters of the new national law hail its stricter provisions allowing victims to request local police officials to issue warnings to their harassers and empowering prefectural public safety commissions to issue restraining orders when those warnings are ignored. But to reiterate: No degree of protection written into national or local laws will have the desired effect if victims’ complaints are trivialized or ignored. The need for protection is real and growing. According to the results of a survey released by the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year, nearly 25 percent of young women in their 20s and 30s nationwide have been the targets of stalkers.

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