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Criminal activity in Japan is at a postwar peak — the police reported 2.9 million violations of the Penal Code in 1999, 7.9 percent more than in the previous year. In the same period, the arrest rate fell to a postwar low. The Justice Ministry has just confirmed this bleak picture in a white paper submitted to the Cabinet, which also reveals that 1999 saw more crime victims than in any year since the war: some 1.89 million, excluding traffic-accident victims. No wonder calls are mounting that greater concern be shown for the long-ignored needs of crime victims.

Perhaps it stems from Japan’s traditional emphasis on “gaman” (endurance or forbearance) as a virtue, but despite occasional token legal advances and many unfulfilled promises, the plights of victims of such serious crimes as stalking, rape, assault and murder — and the plights of their families — continue to arouse only minimal official concern. For the similar white paper on crime it submitted one year ago, the ministry interviewed victims for the very first time. (It noted then that more than 60 percent of murder victims’ relatives continued to suffer from trauma even after the killers had been convicted.)

A group representing a 150-member national association of crime victims and their families managed to obtain 15 minutes of Justice Minister Okiharu Yasuoka’s time last week to make a renewed plea for greater government assistance with medical and other costs. Mr. Yasuoka reportedly promised to “consider” ways to meet their request, but that response offers little cause for optimism. Despite earlier pledges of improvement, the group believes, perpetrators continue to receive more legal protection than their victims.

Mr. Isao Okamura, the group’s lawyer, points out that the central government allocated more than 10 billion yen in fiscal 1998 to cover medical expenses and the costs of court-appointed attorneys for criminal assailants. Yet victims still have trouble obtaining even the limited compensation to which they are entitled under a 1981 law. Compensation amounts are determined on a case-by-case basis by prefectural public-safety commissions, using a formula based on 1981 wage levels.

But the rights of crime victims involve considerably more than adequate financial compensation. Under three laws intended to protect those rights and victims’ privacy that were enacted or revised in May, and which take effect from next month, victims and their families who intend to file damage suits against their assailants will finally be able to see court records and testify during court hearings. In certain crimes, such as rape and gang-related incidents, witness testimony from behind partitions will be permitted. Not surprisingly, it will be even longer before testimony by television from outside courtrooms is allowed.

However, some long-established failures to consider the feelings of crime victims and their families were so easy to correct it is difficult to believe that no action was possible until the new laws take effect. A case in point is the new rule that courtroom seats must be allocated to victims and their relatives who wish to attend hearings. Until now, they have had to take their chances in a lottery with other prospective attendees.

The Justice Ministry has also finally decided to reconsider how it disposes of items of evidence. Legally, items used in crimes are the property of the defendant, but the ministry has realized that it should be easier for victims to be given such evidence as photographs or videotapes taken without their knowledge.

The ministry has taken another needed step with its decision to begin notifying victims when the perpetrators of crime against them are to be released from prison, in order to reduce the possibility of acts of revenge. But the rights of crime victims are still far from established in practice. Revision of the Juvenile Law could help to end such anomalies as the situation in which the parents of a teenage boy beaten to death by other youths are unable to learn exactly how their only son died or to obtain the names of his assailants. Family court officials sometimes argue that the future of young lawbreakers is of greater concern to them than the feelings of victims’ families.

The media cannot escape part of the blame and should not deny their role in violating the rights of crime victims. In today’s fiercely competitive media arena, the noble goal of informing the public can sometimes take a back seat to attaining journalistic scoops at any cost. Too often, this involves the relentless pursuit of victims and incursions by reporters into matters of utmost personal privacy. The media cannot on the one hand loudly defend the rights of victims while on the other contribute to their plight.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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