Moves to rein in child pornography meet resistance in Japan

Faced with mounting pressure, Japan’s government has been forced to confront the country’s huge market in child pornography, raising hopes for a ban on possession of the material. But there's plenty of resistance.

By , Correspondent

Faced with mounting foreign and domestic pressure, Japan’s government has been forced to rethink how to handle the country’s huge market in child pornography, raising hopes for an overdue ban on possession.

While it is illegal to produce or distribute child pornography in Japan, possessing it is not – an anomaly Japan shares with only one other G8 nation, Russia. The release last month of national police agency figures showing a dramatic rise in the number of known child pornography cases coincides with new calls for the government to take action. Yet, say campaigners, national legislators lack the political will to change the law.

Investigators took action in 1,342 cases in 2010, the police agency said, a rise of 43.5 percent from the previous year. The number of reported child pornography victims, meanwhile, rose to 618, an increase of more than 52 percent from 2009 – a new record since that type of data was first compiled in 2000.

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The existing law has effectively encouraged the growth of a lucrative market in sexually explicit images of children, ranging from manga comics to animated movies and, at the most dissolute end of the spectrum, films of children being subjected to rape, torture, and other crimes.

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Avoiding pitfalls

Critics of the current laws have encountered intransigent politicians, many from the legal profession, who believe a catchall law would entrap the innocent and impinge on freedom of expression.

But child advocacy groups say a new law could be sufficiently refined to avoid both such pitfalls. Politicians, they argue, have shown little will to take on the delicate, complex issue in the face of powerful publishers determined to protect their commercial interests.

Only two MPs attended a recent public meeting at the national Diet, or parliament, and left before journalists could question them.

Backpedaling

While the former government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, drafted legislation in 2008 that would ban possession of child pornography – but which exempted “virtual” pornography in manga and anime form – the current administration of the Democratic Party of Japan has backpedaled since taking office in 2009.

Moves proposed by the DPJ in July 2010 that would enable a government-affiliated body to block child pornography sites beginning in April have been hampered by disagreements over screening criteria and how to deal with potential lawsuits by site operators who believe they have been unfairly targeted.

“The DPJ says it is a party that puts children first, but I doubt that,” says Junko Miyamoto of ECPAT/STOP, which campaigns against child prostitution and trafficking. “How are they demonstrating their commitment to children?

“Progress has been slow over the past 15 years, but now it is even slower. We put a lot of effort into persuading the last government to act, but the current one is even worse.”

Ms. Miyamoto is similarly critical of publishers and others who profit from the sexualisation of children in Japanese popular culture.

Magazine covers regularly feature scantily clad – though never naked – prepubescent “junior idols,” while fictional representations of girls, often dressed in school uniforms, are the stock in trade of “erotic” comics that comprise a sizable chunk of Japan’s $5.5 billion manga market.

“The media and the entertainment industry have to bear a lot of the responsibility,” Miyamoto says. “They use sexualized depictions of very young children to make money. But they don’t need to exploit children to sell comics.”

Local authorities tackle the issue

Exasperated by the lack of movement at the national level – despite opinion polls showing that most Japanese agree that the law needs changing – local authorities are taking unilateral action.

Kyoto Prefecture is soon expected to become the first locality to pass an ordinance requiring sexually explicit images of children to be destroyed by the owner, under threat of fines and imprisonment.

And Tokyo, under its conservative governor, Shintaro Ishihara, is to ban the sale of comics, DVDs, and video games carrying sexually explicit images of children to anyone under 18.

It is a modest step, yet Governor Ishihara has so enraged some leading manga publishers that they have withdrawn from next month’s Tokyo International Anime Fair.

The Polaris Project, an antitrafficking organization based in Washington, has urged Japan’s politicians to make possession a crime punishable by a prison sentence and a fine.

“We are talking about actual photographs and videos of real children being abused, raped, and molested on camera,” Bradley Myles, the organization’s executive director, said during a during a recent seminar in Tokyo organized by the Polaris’s Japan office.

Mr. Myles believes Japan would benefit from the introduction of a law similar to the US PROTECT Act, which was passed in 2003 and has resulted in a 40 percent rise in prosecutions for sex offenses against children since 2006.

“When possession of these images is legal in Japan, it creates a gap and an impediment to the entire international effort to police the problem,” Mr. Myles said. “This year is a timely opportunity for Japan to take bold action to confront this issue.”

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