Does Japan Ever Convict Men for Rape?

The law may be changing, but from the ‘comfort women’ of World War II to the victims of today, justice is very hard to come by.


TOKYO—Eight thousand people, including many prominent lawyers, submitted a petition to the Japanese ruling coalition last month demanding it finally do something to strengthen the laws against sexual assault in Japan.

The issue has long been a non-priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government—which seems to put more emphasis on reinstituting bayonet practice for children than it puts on passing laws that might protect women.

And let’s be clear about this: The laws that are on the books provide very little protection at all.

In Japan, if you rape a woman, your odds of being arrested are fairly low, and the odds of actually being prosecuted about a flip of the coin—slightly weighted toward no prosecution. Even if you’re found guilty, there’s a good chance you may never spend a day in jail if you say you’re sorry and pay damages.

Two cases in the past year involving sexual assault in Japan illustrate how far the Land of the Rising Sun still is from effectively dealing with crimes against women.

You may remember the outrage in the United States when former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, only spent three months in jail after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. In Japan, he most likely would never have been arrested. Even if he was actually prosecuted, and found guilty, he probably would not have spent a day in prison. He would not have been required to register as a sex offender either.

In Japan, men get away with rape because the police are reluctant to investigate, victims settle, and for all the talk of “womenomics” it’s still a fundamentally misogynist culture.

Of the arrests made for rape and sexual assault every year, only roughly half (or less) end up being prosecuted, according to Ministry of Justice figures. You could, of course, point out that there are other countries in the world with worse statistics or where rape is almost never punished, but Japan is an economically developed democracy, one that will host the 2020 Olympics. We and the people of Japan can expect better.

Last year in a highly visible rape case, a well-known actor, 22-year-old Yuta Takahata, was released on bail from Maebashi Police Station in Gunma Prefecture on Sept. 9 after prosecutors decided not to pursue rape charges. The incident involved a hotel worker in the city. Takahata reportedly had admitted to the rape when he was arrested, which was headlined in major Japanese media at the time.

However, when he settled with the victim, according to weekly magazine Josei Seven and other reports, the prosecutors dropped the case against him. After that, Takahata’s lawyers released a statement suggesting he was innocent and they would have pleaded innocent if the case had gone to court.

According to Kunitaka Kasai, a criminal defense lawyer from the Rei Law Office, “When prosecutors drop charges there is no way of knowing whether it is because there wasn’t enough evidence.” Kasai also pointed out, “Most settlements usually have written into the text, ‘I (the victim) do not wish him (the assailant) to face criminal punishment.’ This greatly discourages the police from pursuing the case, even if they could do so without the cooperation of the victim.” Rape cases without bodily injury require the victim to file charges, or there is no crime.

A police detective who handles violent crime cases also told The Daily Beast,We don’t want to be pawns in a civil suit. If the victims would rather seek criminal punishment for the offender than a pay-off, of course we’re more enthusiastic about pursuing the case. It’s a lot of work for nothing if the victim makes a deal.”

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According to data from the Ministry of Justice, the number of sexual assaults in Japan per year is not known and data from a 2012 study concluded that in a five-year period only an estimated 18.5 percent of sexual assaults were reported. Moreover, in cases of rape and sexual assault in which arrests are made, more than half (53 percent) are dropped by prosecutors.

First-time offenders, even if they are prosecuted and found guilty, can walk away with a suspended sentence, and as long as they commit no other criminal offenses during the court-determined period of time after the guilty verdict, they will spend no time in jail.

This was the case for Kensuke Matsumi, a Tokyo University student convicted of sexually assaulting a drunken classmate along with several of his friends on May 11 last year. The victim turned down his settlement offer and chose to go to court where the judge deemed his actions “persistent and despicable” and the victim’s mental and physical suffering “unbearable.” Yet on Sept. 20, the judge only sentenced him to a two-year prison term suspended for four years since he “is remorseful and vowed to never drink alcohol again.”

Many women are reluctant to even press charges in the first place for fear of having to relive the events and the stigma of being a sexual attack survivor. Even if the women summon up the courage to go report the case, the chances of a trained female officer being assigned to the case are slight, since only 8.9 percent of the police force are women.

The Japanese National Police Agency for Crime Victims pamphlet on police support for sex crime victims (PDF) states that, “It is also unavoidable that officers, in their contacts with victims, often cause them to suffer secondary victimization.” It then lists ways to minimize the damage, such as counseling, using special investigators, or appointing female officers to assist. But too often the cops on the ground seem to be completely unaware of the guidelines the NPA has put forward.

As an example, Laura Curtis, an American researcher at a prestigious university in Japan was the victim of a sexual assault attempt last summer. After fighting off her attacker, she made a terrifying journey to the nearby police station, fearing the attacker who was still on the loose. To her surprise, the police not only seemed uninterested in pursuing the case but she found herself in a tiny room full of mostly male officers repeatedly explaining in excruciating detail what had happened to her.

This is an excerpt of her account for what happened:

I wondered if this was how questioning normally occurred, crammed into this claustrophobic space, loomed over by five officers, only two of whom really fit in the room with me. But more than the inappropriateness of the space, I began to notice the tenor of the questions.

“What did he look like? He was a foreigner, wasn’t he? Was he white? An American?”

No, I said, he was Japanese.

“A Korean? Probably a Korean or a Chinese person?”

No, I said, he was Japanese.

“She said he looked like a regular salaryman [white collar worker],” the one female officer in the room interjected, “She said he was Japanese.”

“Are you sure he was wearing a white dress shirt? Wasn’t it more like a t-shirt?”

No, I said, repeating myself for the third time. It was a short-sleeved collared shirt.

“And pants like these?” A male officer suggested, tugging on his black cargoes.

No, I said, repeating myself again. They were slacks.

“Like a salaryman,” the female officer echoed. “That’s what she said.”

Interspersed with the suggestions that my attacker could not have possibly looked like a Japanese business man, the officers inserted every few minutes, “You don’t want to submit a police report, right?”

The first few times I hadn’t caught onto the word, and from context I couldn’t tell if I should say yes or no. I heard the word “higai,” damage or injury, in there, but didn’t realize “higaitodoke” was a police report, and stumbled through the questions adrenaline-addled; avoiding giving an answer to something I didn’t understand.”

The interrogation was like a surrealist play, with the final act the policemen taking her to the scene of the crime minutes after the attempted attack. There she was made to reenact the attack with a female officer while repeatedly being questioned about whether the attacker was a foreigner or a drunk. All the while, she was constantly encouraged not to file a report.

Unfortunately, the first instinct of the system and society is to find something or somebody other than the attacker to blame. Namely the victim, or more conveniently, alcohol.

In accused rapist Takahata’s case, the media went after his famous actress mother, persecuting her for her responsibility in raising such a spoiled thoughtless son. She in turn held an apology press conference tearfully condemning his acts but at the same time confessing that she assured him she will be his supportive mother no matter what. When asked for comments to the victim she had not much more to offer than an apology, all the while referring to the woman as “the alleged victim.”

Nobuko Ohyabu, a photojournalist and a rape survivor herself, has worked extensively with Japanese police and counselors to better handle such investigations. She says that failure to hold individuals accountable propels rape culture in Japan.

“It is interesting to see a mother baby her son so much, which is pretty common both in Japan and the U.S.,” says Ohyabu. “Ultimately these overbearing mothers make mama’s boys into irresponsible men who don’t even know how to clean up their own mess. This is a big part of the rape culture in my opinion.”

In Japan today, everyone or everything is blamed when a rape occurs, except the rapist. So it is not surprising that many of the rapists themselves have trouble acknowledging the gravity of their actions.

Masako Makino, an ex-police officer turned gender and sociology researcher at Kyoto University, sees a deep parallel between the narratives of sexual assault she heard from perpetrators today and the attitude Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has taken toward “comfort women,” forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Makino has spoken to over a hundred rape survivors and many rapists during her years of research. What she found was the rapists’ complete failure to recognize and identify themselves as perpetrators. “They are willing to apologize to anyone, just as long as it is not to the victims themselves,” she says. “They targeted the victims because they deemed these women as ‘less,’ and for them to fight back using the law is to the rapists the utmost humiliation and defeat. As long as the apology is performed in front of a third party, such as in court, or to researchers like Makino, they feel as though their burden is forgiven, therefore giving them a sense of acceptance from society.”

Makino once asked them to speak from a first-person perspective about their lives and she discovered that as soon as they tried, they were unable to speak, for fear of having to own their own actions. They were only able to describe the rape as “the victim being hurt”—not themselves as “hurting the victim.”

Makino notes this is the same language Abe employs when discussing the comfort women—the Korean, Dutch, Taiwanese, and other women who were abused sex workers during the war. It is something, she says, that was apparent in Abe’s televised address on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 14, 2015.

The apology was not meant for the victims, but a mere performance to gain recognition as doing the “right” thing, she says. He proceeded to mention that Japan must never forget that women were “hurt,” another failure to acknowledge responsibility, and to add insult to injury stated his wishes to “stand by” women who are hurt and to “lead the world into a century where women’s rights are not hurt.”

Makino dissects: “If you wish to lead the world in preventing sexual violence, the most important thing is to not repeat what you have once done, and first and foremost, clarifying what was done, apologize to the victims and to never forget the remorse.”

When the leaders of society refuse to acknowledge the perpetrators’ responsibility as much as possible, it is natural that victims do not step forward. The stakes are too high and so are the hurdles.

Last year in September, a special advisory council to the Ministry of Justice strongly suggested Japan needed to revamp the laws that deal with sexual assault and rape. The council advised that there should not have to be a criminal complaint filed by the victim for an indictment to take place and the minimum penalty should be changed from three years in jail to five years. The council also noted, shockingly (for Japan) that male victims of rape should also be acknowledged, because under current law only women can be victims of rape.

The Ministry of Justice took these suggestions into account and submitted a bill revising the criminal code to Japan’s parliament which was green lighted on March 7. This is the first revision of the sex offense statues enacted in 1907, the Meiji Era, a change many critics have said is long overdue.

If passed by the Diet, the minimum sentence for rape will be raised from the current three years to five. Also, men finally will be recognized as victims, and a victim’s complaint will no longer be required in prosecuting an assailant in a rape or sexual molestation case.

Other factors in the revision include a new clause for domestic sexual abuse which punishes parents or guardians for sex with children in their care, even where force or threats are not involved and the victims do not report. The current criminal law requires use of force or threats in establishing rape cases.

This is technically progress if the bill is passed, but even then, if the victim does not wish to press charges, it is predicted the prosecutor’s office will probably drop the case, just as they have been doing for years.

And it is still possible that “sincere” apologies could result in a suspended sentence instead of real jail-time.

Misogyny and sexism runs deep and wide in all aspects of Japanese society and taking a firm stand against sexual violence would be a positive step in correcting that problem. Perhaps the revisions to the criminal code will be a step in the right direction, if they pass. For all the government’s talk of “empowering” women, how powerful can any Japanese woman be if she can’t get the man who raped her held responsible for his crime and imprisoned?