Japan to ban child porn after years as international outlier

Proposed law will allow a year for disposal of porn before possession is punishable

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe: his country’s stance on child porn is increasingly an embarrassment to his government. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe: his country’s stance on child porn is increasingly an embarrassment to his government. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:00

Later this month, Japan’s parliament is expected to pass a law outlawing possession of child pornography, finally pulling the country into line with the rest of the developed world.

Japan’s outlier status is increasingly an embarrassment to the conservative government of prime minister Shinzo Abe. Although production and distribution have been banned since 1999, Japan is the only OECD nation that allows possession of paedophile images.

The anomaly is partly to protect its manga and anime industries, which churn out thousands of titles every year that sail close to the legal wind.

The proposed law will exempt those industries. And it will allow potential offenders a year to dispose of their collections before making possession punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

Pressure has been building on the government for years. In 2012, police in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, tried for the first time to prosecute three male customers of a DVD showing grown men having sex with children as young as 12. Prosecutors declined to press charges against the men, citing a lack of evidence.

600 children a year

Child porn-related crimes have grown fivefold in Japan through the last decade, according to the country’s National Police Agency. At least 600 children a year fall victim to paedophile directors and photographers.

Bookstores and convenience stores across the country stock magazines carrying semi-naked pictures of pubescent and prepubescent children. Many underage girls have built careers as so-called “junior idols”, posing in suggestive poses. A government survey in 2002 found that 10 per cent of Japanese men admitted to owning child porn at some stage.

In the electronics district of Akihabara, Tokyo’s capital of geeky cool, tourists gawk at cartoon images of children in various stages of sexual distress, all perfectly legal. One of the nation’s most popular pop groups, AKB48, features a revolving cast of members, some as young as 13, persuaded to pout in adult lingerie for videos and magazine covers.

The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation traced nearly 16,250 websites depicting child abuse back to Japan in 2006, enough to put it third on a global watch list. In 2009, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection placed Japan fourth among the top five countries hosting websites with child abuse images, according to ECPAT International, an NGO that fights to end the commercial exploitation of children.

One reason for the reluctance to roll out new national legislation was the fear that police may use it too liberally, threatening freedom of creative expression.

Conservative politicians have long demanded a clampdown on pornographic images. Four years ago, Tokyo’s government banned the sale or rent of comics and anime movies depicting younger characters engaging in “extreme” sexual acts.

But the ban was resisted by Japan’s biggest publishers, who produce hundreds of risqué manga a year featuring fetishism, incest and “Lolita porn”. The Tokyo Bar Association also criticised the wording of the legislation, warning it could be the thin edge of the censorship wedge against sexualised images of any kind. The new law seems to be a compromise, though not without controversy.

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