One Solution: Tighten Japan's Lax Laws

Combined lack of moral and legal strictures allows the child-pornography industry to prosper in Japan. "The key problem in this country is that the sexual exploitation of children is socially permitted," says Sumiko Shimizu, a socialist member of Japan's upper house of parliament and one of the people trying to change both laws and attitudes.

They think the time is now, since officials in Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry are considering revisions to the child-welfare law to improve access to day care and address other problems. Parliamentarians such as Ms. Shimizu and Seiko Noda want them to take the opportunity to add prohibitions against child pornography and other measures related to the sexual exploitation of children, but they are meeting with bureaucratic opposition.

"Everyone seems to believe that [child pornography] can be addressed by revising the child-welfare law, but that is too simplistic," says Motoo Fukuda, a Health and Welfare official. If Japan broadened the reach of the law in order to protect foreign children used in pornography, he offers by way of example, the government might open itself to claims for other benefits for non-Japanese children.

The response of Mr. Fukuda and other bureaucrats has brought Shimizu to the point of disgust. "I don't expect a single forward step from Health and Welfare officials," she says. "They just say that [crimes involving child pornography] are hard to substantiate ... and that expression is protected by the Constitution."

One of the government officials interviewed says the crucial problem is that no single ministry or agency has decided to take responsibility for addressing child pornography, since it falls between several administrative portfolios. This lapse is a major problem in Japan, where legal and regulatory changes need bureaucratic support.

Fukuda was part of Japan's delegation to an international conference on the commercial sexual exploitation of children last August. "My perception of the seriousness of the problem has deepened, and since then I've been doing what I can," he says. As to specific measures his ministry might take, he continues, "we'll have to wait and see what the legislators come up with."

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