Japan hit for allowing child porn on the Web

It was a beautiful day in May, and Keiji Goto was feeling fine.

A senior superintendent in Japan's National Police Agency, Mr. Goto was visiting Lyon, France, to attend a conference of fellow officers and other experts on child pornography and the Internet.

All was well until the meeting began. Goto's peers clobbered him with criticism, since Japan is the only industrialized country in the world that hosts a perfectly legal child-pornography industry. "I was so embarrassed," Goto says now, at how frustrated other police officers were with his country. Some even came up to him afterward to say it wasn't personal. "I became aware that Japan's approach to child pornography is not acceptable internationally," Goto told a recent UNICEF-sponsored workshop in Tokyo. "Our standards of decency have been seriously questioned by the international community."

Goto's newfound awareness is gaining strength in Japan, but activists, academics, and other nations are pressuring the government here to act more quickly to counter its homegrown child-pornography industry. A draft bill on the matter was introduced in Japan's parliament last May, but the government has been too distracted by economic recession to take it up.

The few lawmakers who are interested in the matter are still engaged in behind-the-scenes discussion over key aspects of the bill. The current outline of the legislation eliminates two elements of the original draft: a ban on the possession of child pornography and a provision concerning "pseudo-pornography" - simulated sexual depictions of children now gaining popularity in cyberspace.

Interpol, the international police organization that hosted the Lyon meeting, estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of the world's commercially distributed child pornography is produced in Japan, although mostly foreign children are depicted. "Japan stands pretty much alone" in the global child-pornography trade, says Interpol official Ralf Mutschke. But there are also vast, uncountable quantities of child pornography exchanged illegally on the Internet, Mr. Mutschke notes. He distinguishes these materials from the commercial and openly available materials in Japan.

Mixed results

Nearly two years after UNICEF and an international activist group known as ECPAT organized the World Congress against the commercial sexual exploitation of children, Japan's follow-up on the issue has lagged, say activists and officials from here and abroad. (ECPAT stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography & Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.)

The interagency team of bureaucrats assembled to represent Japan at the World Congress was disbanded immediately afterward, says Sumiko Shimizu, a member of Japan's parliament who led the delegation. "There is very little to report to you on the activities of the government since then, which is a pity indeed," she told the UNICEF workshop.

At the World Congress, delegations from Japan and 121 other countries signed a document saying they would come up with an "agenda for action" in response to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Alexia Huxley, ECPAT's program director, says approximately 20 countries have done so and another 20 are "working on it."

In most cases these plans include measures to prevent and punish child prostitution, pornography, and trafficking; steps to expand awareness about these issues; and efforts to get adults to think of children as full-fledged human beings whose rights must be respected.

The German government, for instance, is doing more than it did before the World Congress to educate its people about child sexual abuse and to investigate and adjudicate crimes involving children more sensitively. It has also toughened penalties for crimes related to the sexual abuse of children and sought to punish citizens who travel abroad in search of child prostitutes.

The US is aggressive in investigating child prostitution and pornography, but ECPAT research coordinator Nancy Foster says it has done little to come up with a comprehensive "national plan." It is one of only two nations - the other is Somalia - that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

While Japan has done little to counter its child-porn trade, Italy and Sweden have passed new laws on the issue. They join Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, US, and others in specifically banning sexual depictions of children.

Nowhere does Japanese law specifically address child pornography. If the sexual depiction of a child conforms to standards used to judge adult pornography, it is legal under obscenity laws. Complaints under a statute prohibiting "forced indecency" must be initiated by the child, or his or her representative, within six months of the act - provisions that limit the law's usefulness.

These legal loopholes exist partly because Japanese are more permissive about sexuality, youthful and otherwise, than Westerners are. The social reserve of many Japanese notwithstanding, pornography has become an increasingly common aspect of life in recent years. Even serious-minded public-affairs magazines routinely include pictures of naked women.

That said, explicit sexual images considered legal in the US and Europe are not permitted here under obscenity standards. Japanese Internet-surfers who want to see these images must turn their browsers to servers elsewhere.

Free expression or child protection

Another factor is a postWar veneration of freedom of expression. In the run-up to World War II, Japan's militarists sharply controlled speech, which makes it politically unpopular for anyone to advocate limitations.

But at least some Japanese are saying that permissiveness and freedom of expression must give way in a world that is increasingly concerned about the sexual exploitation of children and how new technology facilitates it. A number of studies and police investigations in the US and Europe demonstrate that sexual depictions of children are transmitted on the Internet in large numbers.

When government profits

Goto, the National Police Agency (NPA) official, says he is frustrated that Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT), a nominally private company that is two-thirds owned by the government, operates a service that "indirectly promotes child pornography in our country."

In an interview, Goto cites an NPA study that found more than 3,000 Japan-based Web sites distributing pornography commercially at the end of 1997. Of those, nearly 41 percent were marketing child pornography, including 221 Web sites distributing images of children under 12.

The NPA researchers also found 365 pornography Web sites - including 188 that were marketing pornographic pictures of children under 18 - using an NTT service called Dial Q2. Customers use a special telephone number to reach a Web site, incurring charges that NTT collects as part of its routine billing. NTT passes the profit back to the Web site, keeping 9 percent for itself.

"There is a clear distinction between the words 'to promote something' and 'to be taken advantage of by somebody else,'" counters NTT marketing manager Masayoshi Yamashita. He notes that NTT has canceled contracts with Web sites that distribute "harmful images," and insists that no Dial Q2 Web sites distribute child pornography.

"Everyone knows that the real issue here is the fact that there are millions of harmful and free pages on the Internet which people can access easily," he adds.

But Dial Q2 still seems to be an embarrassment. Normally plainspoken, parliamentarian Yoko Komiyama looks uncomfortable when she is asked about the service. "It's a little strange," she says, that the nationwide phone company is in this line of business, declining to say any more.

Ms. Komiyama is confident her colleagues will pass the draft law on child pornography, prostitution, and trafficking this spring. She says some politicians have objected to certain provisions in the original draft, which banned possession of child pornography and sought to regulate pornographic "pictures" other than photographs.

Activists and law-enforcement officials want both measures. Possession is easier to prove than other activities, such as production or distribution, simplifying the work of police and prosecutors. A "pictures" provision might also cover simulated, computer-generated pornography that activists say is just as damaging to children as photographs, because both materials allegedly encourage users to abuse children. The UK and the Netherlands have banned such 'virtual' child pornography.

But Komiyama explains that the ease of enforcement is one thing that worries lawyers and politicians. They imagine that police could come across child pornography in the course of an unrelated investigation and then gain undue leverage over a suspect. "In the world of politics, there needs to be some concessions made to the other side," she adds.

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