Following Up on World's Promise to Protect Youths

Recent murders in Japan highlight need for action

Japan is confronting a crime that will not soon be forgotten. The bizarre murder of an 11-year-old boy in the city of Kobe is capturing headlines across the country.

A note found with the boy's remains, addressed to police, asked, "Can you stop me?" The taunt raised the possibility of a connection to an unsolved March 16 attack on two elementary school girls in the same neighborhood that left one dead and the other injured.

Here in Tokyo, the disturbing news from Kobe was hard to miss. But a small, one-day conference yesterday provided some reason to be optimistic that society is gradually learning how to protect the lives of children from torment and suffering.

A conservatively dressed crowd that included royalty and politicians, civil servants and lawyers, diplomats and academics squeezed into an elegant but undersized auditorium at the Swedish Embassy. The topic was the commercial sexual exploitation of children - child prostitution and child pornography. This sort of abuse sometimes ends in murders like those in Kobe.

Sweden's Queen Silvia has tried to draw attention to these issues, with some success. Her government helped sponsor an international conference on the subject that was held in Stockholm last year.

Labeled a World Congress, it drew government officials and activists from about 130 countries and resulted in promises to counteract the sexual abuse of children for money.

She and her husband, King Carl XVI Gustaf, are visiting Japan this week, and they spent most of yesterday attending a meeting intended to follow up on the Stockholm congress. The queen spoke at first about "the light in the dark tunnel showing more clearly," but she made it clear that the problem is a long way from solved.

Other speakers contributed to the impression that corrective action has begun, even if the commercial sexual exploitation of children remains a worldwide phenomenon with no easy solutions.

European countries, for instance, are more vigorously using new laws that allow the prosecution of citizens who sexually exploit children in other countries, according to Helena Karlen, the Swedish representative of a private group called ECPAT that has raised the world's awareness of the problem.

Ms. Karlen added that Swedes are now discussing a constitutional change that would ban the possession of child pornography, a step most industrialized countries have already taken.

Japanese participants took a more somber line, acknowledging criticism that Japan hosts the world's largest child pornography industry and that its citizens are among those who travel to poorer countries in search of sexually exploitable children.

"We have come to realize that we lack laws and regulations," said Sadakazu Tanigaki, a member of parliament who belongs to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The country has no law that specifically addresses child pornography.

But Mr. Tanigaki was joined at the conference by several other lawmakers, a Cabinet minister, and a member of Japan's imperial family - suggesting that the issue is becoming more important at the highest levels of this society.

The meeting was also interesting as an example of international cooperation. Most of those in attendance were Swedes and Japanese gathered to focus on a global issue. The United States was hardly mentioned - it was neither vilified nor seen as a country whose support was needed to bring about a solution.

But one American, Martin Luther King Jr., did provide Karlen with a sentiment with which to end her speech: "The worst in this world is not the evil. The worst is the silence of those who do not speak out."

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