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Age of consent increased from 13 to 16 years in Japan: Here’s why

As part of revamping its laws relating to sex crimes, Japan has raised the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16 years. The limit had remained unchanged for over a century and faced flak for being one of the lowest in the world.

This is the first time Japan has changed its age of consent since 1907 when the law was first enacted. Besides this, other laws have been passed: banning upskirting or photo voyeurism, specifying eight scenarios of “consentless sex crimes,” and also punishing offences against minors.

What are the new laws being introduced?

Apart from criminalising sexual intercourse with a person below the age of 16 by terming it “rape”, the upper house of the Diet (Japan’s parliament) passed a series of laws on June 16.

The first and foremost change is in the definition of “rape” itself. Earlier “rape” was defined as sexual intercourse or indecent acts committed “forcibly” and “through assault or intimidation”, or by taking advantage of a person’s “unconscious state or inability to resist”. However, the new definition moves away from just forcible sexual intercourse and broadens the ambit to include ‘non-consensual sexual intercourse” in a society where the concept of consent is still poorly understood, the BBC said.

The revised law also specifies eight scenarios of “consentless sex crimes,” where it is difficult for a victim to “form, express, or fulfil an intention not to consent” to sexual intercourse. These include forced sexual intercourse and assault under the influence of alcohol or drugs, fear, or intimidation. Situations where the victim has been subjected to violence or threats; or is “frightened or astonished” or even “worried” about the consequences of refusing have been included too. Thus, those who were previously unable to voice resistance due to shock or other “psychological reactions” or their attacker’s economic or social status can do so now.

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The offence of rape will attract up to 15 years of imprisonment. However, a person having sex with a minor aged 13-15 will be punished only if the person is five years older than the minor or more.

A new crime has also been carved out by criminalising the practice of “upskirting” or photo voyeurism. This means that Japan has now prohibited the taking, distribution, or possession of photographs of someone’s genitals without their consent. Additionally, taking photographs “of people being manipulated without their knowledge into sexual positions” has also been made a crime. Specifically, the bill bans the filming of children “in a sexual manner without justifiable reason”. Offenders can face up to three years imprisonment or a fine of up to 3 million Japanese yen, which comes to around 17.20 lakh rupees.

It has been reported by the BBC that in Japan, child models, who are mostly girls, are often portrayed in sexually provocative ways and are made to pose in lingerie or swimsuits. About seven in 10 flight attendants in Japan have also reported that their photos were secretly taken, according to a survey by a national aviation trade union published in March, the Japan Times has reported.

The statute of limitations, or the legally permissible time limit for reporting a crime, will be extended to 15 years from 10 years for rape cases to give the victims more time to come forward.

The new amendment also protects minors. For one, it makes grooming,” or the practice of building a relationship with a child to abuse or manipulate them into doing things, a crime. Further, asking minors under 16 for sexual images or asking to visit them for sexual purposes has been criminalised as well.

What are the ages of consent across the world?

Some countries have a lower age of consent than Japan, such as Nigeria, the Philippines, and Angola, where the minimum ages are 11, 12, and 12 years, respectively. However, among the developed nations, Japan fared relatively poorly while the age was still 13 years old.

Raising the age of consent to 16 years has placed Japan in a similar spot as several American states and European nations like the United Kingdom, Norway, and Finland. In fact, the minimum age of consent is still 14 in several EU countries like Germany, Italy, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Estonia, and Bulgaria. However, in Spain, the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 years only in 2015.

Besides Europe, several South American countries like Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia have set 14 as the minimum age too.

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Meanwhile, Bahrain has the highest age of consent in the world at 21 years, followed closely by India and Malta at 18 years. In India, the age of consent used to be 16 years originally, but it was later increased to 18 years in 2013 after the passage of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, to ensure conformity with the Act. Recently, the 22nd Law Commission, which is looking into the age of consent, also held a meeting with officials of the Women and Child Development Ministry to seek details on the subject.

Importantly, the change in Japan’s laws is not an isolated development. It was the result of multiple acquittals in rape cases that led to a nationwide outcry and culminated in the Flower Demo campaign against sexual violence.

What made Japan change its laws?

On the 11th of every month since April 2019, activists throughout Japan assemble to ask for justice while expressing solidarity with sexual assault survivors as part of the Flower Demo campaign against sexual violence.

This campaign began as a result of several acquittals in high-profile rape cases, which occurred within a span of a few weeks. One of these was the acquittal of a father who raped his 19-year-old daughter in Nagoya City, Japan. Despite the court acknowledging that the sex was not consensual and the father had used force to sexually abuse his daughter, some of the judges doubted whether the daughter had indeed resisted, a Reuters report said.

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The father’s acquittal sparked protests across Japan. Women in Tokyo and Fukuoka took to the streets holding flowers and signs to protest against the sexual violence, CNN reported. However, the acquittal was overturned by the Nagoya High Court, which also sentenced the father to 10 years in prison.

Similarly, the 2019 case of Shiori Ito, a Japanese woman whose rape accusations against the bureau chief of the TBS network made her a symbol of the country’s newfound #MeToo movement, was awarded over 3 million yen in damages.

Notably, this is not the first time that laws relating to sex crimes have been revised since 1907. In 2017, Japan imposed longer sentences on rapists and recognised male victims, in addition to categorising forced oral and anal sex, the Japan Times reported.

However, the 2017 amendments were seen as inadequate owing to the lack of recognition of non-consensual crimes unless they were accompanied by violence or intimidation. The absence of violence on the rapist’s part was construed as the victim’s lack of resistance. Besides this, the age of consent was only 13, and photo voyeurism was not a crime when the 2017 amendment to the criminal code on sexual crimes was passed.

Previously, Japanese law also required evidence of “intent to resist.” However, victims found this hard to prove in many cases, owing to reasons like being too afraid to resist physically or freezing in such a state. Thus, the law would discourage victims from coming forward, fearing that their perpetrator would be acquitted for lack of evidence of resistance, CNN said.

These developments acted as a driving force behind activists seeking a broader definition and interpretation of the law, which encourages survivors to come forward and report such attacks rather than abstain from reporting them.

Separately, the Parliament has also passed a new law to increase awareness of LGBTQ+ issues.

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What is the new LGBTQ+ law in Japan?

On June 16, Japan’s Parliament passed a separate bill to increase awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, which is being criticised for not guaranteeing any equal rights to sexual minorities in the country.

As of date, Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven Nations that does not accord legal protection to LGBTQ+ persons. Other countries in the group include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the USA.

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However, Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, is still very conservative. Thus, the new LGBTQ+ law deems “unjust discrimination” against sexual minorities unacceptable without categorically banning the same.

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