By Sophia Kulow
Japan’s Cabinet recently approved a bill that would acknowledge sexual violence even without physical violence or coercion,while also raising the age of consent from 13 to 16. Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims who are unable to give consent. Coercion involves words or circumstances that cause a person to fear that the other will inflict bodily harm or confine the person. Coercion also includes physical size or strength, which causes the person to submit to an unwanted sexual act.
These amendments will reform Japan’s Penal Code, making the illegality of non-consensual intercourse more more explicit, including invasive actions like ‘upskirting’ or taking photos of a person’s genital area without consent. This comes after a decade-long wave of victims spoke out against sexual violence and the inability to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
In 2015, a young Japanese journalist, Shiori Ito, went to the police alleging that editor, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, had drugged and sexually assaulted her after a meeting about a potential job. “When I regained consciousness, in intense pain, I was in a hotel room and he was on top of me…I knew what had happened but I couldn’t process it.” When Shiori reported this incident to the police, they met her trauma with skepticism, discouraged her from filing a report, and subjected her to a lengthy, humiliating interrogation. Despite the evidence Shiori provided, police declined to prosecute Noriyuki.
Shiori did not allow her story to end there. She went public with her case on social media in 2015 and sparked Japan’s #MeToo movement. Shiori’s leadership working to change a profoundly patriarchal society also allowed other women to feel brave enough to tell their stories.
In two weeks time, the wave of allegations led to the exposure of the behavior of several public figures, top officials resigned from their positions, and, unfortunately, backlash against the women behind the claims.
However, the culmination of women speaking out then eventually forced the Japanese government to revise its Penal Code in 2017 and strengthen its century-old law on rape. Due to Shiori’s dedication, in 2019, Noriyuki Yamaguchi was ordered to pay damages in a civil trial.
Regardless of the country, the belief that women are lying, occurs in various forms by our justice systems and those who are supposed to protect us. It can be incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual violence when the justice system does not recognize it and often favors the man’s voice over a woman’s.
Shiori and the other women who stepped up became the foundation of encouragement for Japan to introduce a new bill that would allow for more protection. It should be noted that these revisions have not been officially passed. Under Japan’s current system, there is a vague definition of what is considered to be punishable and clear evidence of physical violence or coercion must be present. Additionally, the age of consent has been 13 since 1907, but increasing it to 16 would hopefully discourage further sexualization and grooming of young girls and boys.
However, even if these revisions were passed, Japan would still be behind the international standards regarding consent. Institutionalizing consent laws would acknowledge that “only yes means yes” and allow more women to be outspoken and have impunity for their perpetrators.
This May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we encourage your support of organizations like Global Rights for Women and your continuous education on current gender-based violence occurrences and systems change updates around the world. This creates a strong network of solidarity among women and advocates, similar to Shiori’s persistence, helping to push justice systems and governments to recognize gender-based and sexual violence for what it is, regardless of physical violence or coercion present during the act.
Sophia Kulow is an intern with Global Rights for Women. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a degree in global studies, and minors in sustainability and fashion.
Asia In-Depth Podcast: The Face of Japan’s #MeToo Movement. (n.d.). Asia Society. https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/asia-depth-podcast-face-japans-metoo-movement
KYODO NEWS. (2023, March 14). Japan OKs bill to reform sexual offense charge, raise age of consent. Kyodo News+. https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2023/03/ac6beea7bda1-japan-oks-bill-to-reform-sexual-offense-charge-raise-age-of-consent.html
Kyodo. (2023, April 13). Japan OKs bill to reform sexual offense charge and raise age of consent. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/03/14/national/sexual-offenses-bill/