When Mari Christine Tsunoda thinks of the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympics Games to be held in Japan, she worries about what will happen in a country where children, in her view, are already too vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
“There will be a great influx of foreigners coming to Japan for the summer Olympics, and among them will be pedophiles who will try to exploit this situation,” Tsunoda said in an interview at a Tokyo restaurant.
In 2014, the National Police Agency reported that there were 2,489 cases where children were reported victims of sex crimes. As with cases involving adult sexual assault, advocates say such figures probably represent the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Tsunoda said Japan has no equivalent of the United States’ Megan’s Law, which requires that information about sex offenders be publicized. “Japan does not have the capability to weed out perpetrators and it will be difficult to protect the children without stricter laws and heavier penalties.”
In October, Tsunoda, the director of the Asian Women and Children’s Network, an advocacy group based in Yokohama, joined nine other nonprofits in petitioning the government for stronger safeguards against the sexual exploitation of children in Japan, a country notorious for high rates of producing and consuming child pornography.
So far, they have received no reply.
Shihoko Fujiwara is director of the Tokyo-based Lighthouse, which supports victims of child prostitution and pornography, and is a signatory to the petition. Fujiwara said many Japanese men who have been guilty of what would be termed “statutory rape” or “child prostitution” in other countries get off the hook by claiming ignorance of local law, or because existing laws are remarkably lenient by Western standards.
The system, Fujiwara said, is turning a blind eye on a problem that is getting worse as younger children are being exploited and the child pornography that is being produced is increasingly violent.
Such advocates face powerful opposition from participants in Japan’s lucrative comic and other entertainment industries, who have lobbied against child pornography laws in the past. Opposition to stricter laws also comes from some lawyers wary of any further restrictions on freedom of expression.
Call for Sex Ed
Petitioners are calling for more sex education in schools, and are hoping to reach potential victims through a published manga, or a Japanese comic, called “Blue Heart,” which warns of at least three classes of sex crimes: illegal businesses that exploit female teens; sexual harassment directed against boys; and “revenge porn” posted online.
They are asking the government to send a “clear signal to the rest of the world that Japanese society no longer tolerates actions by anyone that turns children into any form of sexual object.” They call for more restraints on the current widespread practice, in photographs and on DVDs, the images of children, sometimes as young as 4 or 5, many widely known as “junior idols,” in swimsuits, or even half-naked.
Changes Being Sought
The current law imposes a prison term of up to one year and fines up to $10,000 for having child pornography or videos of children.
Among other things, petitioners are asking the government to ban children under 15 from appearing in any materials intended for distribution or sale that show them nude, taking baths or wearing swimsuits.
They also ask for children to be prohibited from participating in acts such as massaging, lying alongside, holding hands and taking walks with adult customers for the purpose of causing sexual arousal.
They want these and other changes added to the country’s law against child abuse. For example, penalties for adults caught posing children in illegal ways would lead to imprisonment for up to three years.
Tsunoda hopes that foreigners will weigh in on this issue and clearly state that a type of behavior being tacitly condoned in Japan is not acceptable by global standards, and that Japan must work harder to protect its children from criminal predators and those who facilitate their crimes.
Maud de Boer-Buquiicchio, U.N. special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, has provided one such foreign voice. In October, at the end of a visit to Japan, Boer-Buquiicchio said at a Tokyo press conference that sexual exploitation of children in the country occurs in multiple commercial forms.
Boer-Buquiicchio said child erotica is distributed in a wide variety of channels, including new technologies. The production of such erotica can act as a preparatory “grooming” stage for further sexual exploitation, such as prostitution and the production of material featuring child abuse. She also said that child pornography in Japan constitutes an enormous business and appears to be socially accepted and tolerated. She joined the petitioners in recommending tougher measures against sexual exploitation.
“We have in Japan many forms of sexual exploitation of children, which are not necessarily criminalized,” she said. “Even if the criminals are convicted, the sentences are extremely low. The whole atmosphere of impunity needs to change.”
Since the law on child pornography was revised in 2014, the petitioning nongovernmental organizations–including Think Kids, ECPAT/STOP Japan, Lighthouse, Japan Anti-Prostitution Association, Asian Women’s and Children’s Network and Kyofukai–say the sexual exploitation of minors has remained a mainstream problem.
The 2014 law banned the possession of pornography involving real children, but it excluded the pornographic treatment of children in fictional forms. That left out the booming market for manga, which in 2014 commanded more than $2 billion in overall sales. It also excluded animation movies and computer graphics.
These media can include forced sex or rape of children and females dressed in school uniforms, which critics say fuels a popular fetish among Japanese men.
The only caveat on the production of such items, claims the petition, is the concealment of the children’s genitals in the image.
Child Porn Leader
Before Japan enacted its first law against the sexual exploitation of children in 1999, the country was notorious as a global leader in both the production and consumption of child porn. Until 2014, it was also the only one among the world’s seven most advanced economies–the so called Group of Seven, or G7–to allow the possession of materials depicting violent sexual activity against children, as long as such materials were not intended for sale, or posted on the Internet.
Now, despite the 2014 law, the fetishization of “cuteness” thrives in Japan through the popular culture and mass media and, according to critics, normalizes what should be the illegal sexual exploitation of children.
One of the most popular pop groups in Japan is AKB48, a group of teenage girls whose male managers produce sexually suggestive songs and videos about them. A founder of the group has been associated with human trafficking and child pornography production, according to some press reports. The general producer of AKB48, Yasushi Akimoto, is a board member of The Tokyo Organizing Committee for the 2020 Olympics, the Daily Beast reported last year.
The managers of AKB48 arrange “handshake events,” where fans (almost invariably men considerably older than the girls) line up and pay money to shake the performers’ hands.
That might sound innocent enough, but the AKB48 handshaking events have spawned amateur spinoff events involved girls as young as 4 and 5. At some of these events, agents persuade parents to bring their daughters to sit, sometimes in sexually provocative poses, and interact with men who have paid about $25 to shake hands or have their photos taken with them, according to the groups.
Children’s safety advocates say that little girls, anxious to please, offer their parents little resistance. Some parents are paid for their children’s participation, a powerful incentive, say critics, in a country where 1-in-6 children live in poverty.
Critics say images of such children can wind up in printed materials and DVDs, where they are shown playing in bed as the camera focuses on their tiny bits of underwear. In some cases the children’s clothes are highly transparent or have been wetted to make the girls’ bodies more visible.
Hope for Fame
Many parents who forgo payment for their daughters’ appearances hope they will eventually achieve fame and idol status in Japan, said Fujiwara of Lighthouse.
“Some parents, who are kept away from the events and filming, do not receive payments because they believe it will eventually lead to their children becoming famous or idols like AKB48 when they get older,” Fujiwara said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a gray system.”
Enjo kōsai, or compensated dating, is the term for another “gray area,” the practice of younger women (mainly from school age to younger housewives) being paid for providing companionship to older men.
Sexual acts can often accompany the “dating,” according to Fujiwara. She adds that typically, the women are recruited by scouts who court them with meals, companionship and gifts as a preparatory to entering the sex and pornography business. Social networks accessed through cell phones, where girls advertise they are available to “hang out,” are the usual form of hookup with these men.
Fujiwara describes a typical story. “A 14-year-old girl recently phoned us at 1 a.m.,” she said. “She was scared because the man she was with drove her out to an area she didn’t know. We kept texting and talking to her on the phone. We eventually lost contact with her, but she called us the next day and said she was OK.”
The girls who get involved in compensated dating come from all social backgrounds but a common denominator is a poor relationship with their families, said Fujiwara. “Some have very strict parents, are expected to be studious at school and not even allowed boyfriends. These girls are naïve, and sometimes it’s their first boyfriends at university who become their pimps.”