The government plans to get the Penal Code amended to impose heavier penalties for rape. The planned legislation will also drop a provision that the crime of rape is indictable only upon a complaint filed by a victim. The move is reasonable in view of the crime’s heinous nature and the psychological burden that the provision places on the victim, which in the worst case could result in no criminal action taken against the suspect.
The planned amendment, to be submitted to the Diet this year, will be based on a set of recommendations compiled in September by the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister. In 2004, the Penal Code was revised to raise the minimum prison term for rape to three years, up from two years. The Legislative Council called for raising the minimum term to five years, with the upper limit kept at 20 years. If the revision is enacted, it will be almost certain that a person convicted of rape will be placed behind bars instead of being given a suspended sentence — since the Penal Code says in principle that a court can suspend a prison sentence if the crime merits a term of up to three years.
The planned change reflects the public’s harsher attitude against rape, which causes victims not only physical but heavy psychological damage. Court rulings on rape crimes handed down in lay judge trials have been heavier than under the old professional judge system.
The elimination of the provision in the law requiring the victim to file a complaint before prosecutors will file an indictment is significant. This requirement, which means that a victim has to make public that she or he had been raped, has had the effect of exacerbating the victim’s suffering and damaging her or his honor, given the prevalent social prejudice against victims of sex crimes. Some rape victims feared that if they filed a complaint, the offender would retaliate. In these circumstances, all to often offenders have been let off the hook.
The planned amendment will remove the burden that the Penal Code provision has imposed on rape victims and will bring it in line with the spirit of United Nations committees dealing with human rights issues. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the U.N. Human Rights Committee, for example, have been calling on Japan to drop the provision. Some other countries recently have done so, including South Korea in 2013.
The Legislative Council’s recommendation and the planned legislation will also expand the definition of rape punishable under the law. Currently it is legally assumed that the rape offender is a man and that the victim is a woman. This assumption will not hold under the council’s recommendation that forceful penetration of parts of the body other than the vagina should also be regarded as rape. This definition also covers cases in which the vagina or the other parts of the body belong to either the offender or a third party. There will thus arise cases in which a man is a rape victim or a woman is an offender. This will represent a major change in the concept of rape in Japanese society and should transform people’s idea of sexual crimes.
Currently, intimidation and violence are legally indispensable components of rape as a crime. This has made it difficult for investigators to take action against parental rape of children.
In accordance with the council’s recommendations, the planned amendment will make it clear that adults can be punished if they engage in sexual activities with children age 17 or younger by taking advantage of their position — such as that of guardian of the victim — even if their acts are not accompanied by intimidation or violence.
One problem with sexual crimes is that it is difficult for outsiders to notice the plight of the victim — which is all the more so if they are committed by one member of a family against another. It is important to provide a legal provision to promptly cope with sexual crimes taking place within a family.
Because sexual crimes leave long-lasting mental scars and are often dubbed as a “crime against one’s soul,” the government and the Diet should make necessary changes to the Penal Code as soon as possible as suggested by the Legislative Council.
Apart from the legislation, it is important to build a society in which people become less likely to commit sex crimes. The national and local governments and the private sector need to cooperate to take actions toward this goal. Since sex offenders tend to repeat their crimes, medical treatment and education, utilizing expert knowledge of medicine and psychology, should be part of the rehabilitation process.
It is also important to take action to prevent sex-crime victims from suffering additional harm when their cases are made public. The various parties involved should come up with ways to ensure that the privacy of sex-crime victims is protected.
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