Would a US-style 'Megan's Law' work in Japan?

In November, when an elementary school student was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in Nara, a wave of public outrage coursed through Japan. Now, that emotion is about to take shape in a new national policy.

Starting June 1, Japan's National Police Agency will allow police to track child molesters after they have been released from prison.

Until now, Japanese police have not been informed of the release dates and addresses of sex offenders. But come June police will receive such information whenever an offender convicted of a sex crime against a child under the age of 13 is released in their communities.

The policy stops short of becoming Japan's version of Megan's Law, the law in the United States that makes the addresses of sex offenders available to the public. But some Japanese policymakers and law-enforcement agents are now urging that such information also be made available to the Japanese public.

Roughly 25 percent of those who committed sex crimes against children last year had prior records of the same crimes, according to National Police Agency (NPA) figures. Much of the public outrage over the Nara case was due to the fact that the alleged perpetrator had twice before been accused of crimes against children.

In 1989 he was suspected of molesting girls in Osaka, and in 1991 he was arrested for attempting to choke to death a 5-year-old girl after she fought off his attempts to molest her.

In Japan, it is not unusual for sex offenders to finish out their prison terms without receiving treatment.

"Japanese prisons do not have many programs for sex offenders," says Junko Fujioka, a psychologist at Osaka University who also counsels sex offenders. The prison system is now making plans for such programs, she says.

She worries, however, that if communities are informed of sex offenders in their midst, it will make it even harder to integrate these offenders into society.

"For some [sex offenders being released from prison], the new policy could make it difficult to adjust.... Many Japanese communities are afraid of criminals, and hate crimes could occur," says Ms. Fujioka.

But she agrees that in light of the 25 percent recidivism rate and out of concern for public safety, "it is necessary to watch [offenders]."

Some Japanese worry that vigilantism will become a problem if the names of sex offenders are released to the public.

In the US, "to date, we have not had any incidents of vigilantism," says Mariam Bedrosian, spokesperson for the California Attorney General's office. The point of the US law, she explains, "is to allow parents and families to be aware of the potential risks in and around their neighborhoods."

Some observers wonder how useful the Japanese system will be, as it does not require released offenders to report a change of address.

Sex crimes are not a new phenomenon in Japan. The policy represents "recognition of a problem that has been there for a while," says Rodger Baker, senior analyst from Stratfor, a private intelligence firm that tracks Japanese domestic issues.

Previously, the Japanese have been reluctant to acknowledge a problem, says Mr. Baker, but public outrage in recent years has forced discussion of the issue.

"Many people in Japanese communities just do not want to know about sexual abuse in their own communities," says Fujioka. This is also often the case with extended families and friends. "Sexual and physical abuse within families is considered something that should not be discussed [with outsiders]," she says.

But in a country where patience is said to be part of the national character, the Nara slaying has brought public indignation to a boiling point.

"The opinion that the human rights of murderers in Japan are protected too much in comparison with those of victims has been rising for the last 10 years," says Ichiya Nakamura, executive director of the Stanford Japan Center.

The new policy is also an attempt to address an element of Japan's national interest, says Baker.

Some Japanese worry that their society is too often associated with a seedy sex culture. From brothels the operate in the open to pornographic comic books to the often-discussed enjukosai phenomenon - teenage girls engaging in casual prostitution with middle-aged male clientele - Japan has had a less-than-wholesome image internationally.

Baker views Japan's recognition of sex-crimes issues as an extension of an attempt to clean up its image abroad.

"There has been more attention in Japan toward this issue since the economy stagnated," says Baker.

NPA statistics show that, since 1994, both rapes and molestation cases against children are on the rise. Although it's difficult to gauge Japanese opinion en masse, observers say that in general there is a feeling in the country that children are not as safe as they once were.

And when it comes to national policy decisions, they predict, concern for the safety of children will be the bottom line.

"People [are] getting skeptical about social safety," says Nakamura. In this regard, he says, the new policy will be welcomed.

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