Women of vision

Reforming Japan's Sex Crime Laws

    This summer, Japan's sex crime laws were revised for the first time in more than 100 years. Under the new law, prison sentences have increased, offenders can now be prosecuted more easily, and the definition of sexual assault has been broadened to include male victims.

    In our continuing series "Women of Vision", we focus on an activist who helped push for change.

    A video was released earlier this year as part of a coordinated campaign to revise Japan's sex crime laws. It was aimed at raising public awareness about sexual violence and to show victims that they don't need to be silent.

    Kanoko Kamata is one of the activists behind the video. She's a community organizer who helps women create strategies and structures to overcome challenges they face in society.

    "We have to speak up to change the situation and admit that there is still a problem that we have to change. That's why we come up with ways to raise our voice," says Kamata, Founder of Table Turnover Ladies.

    According to government data, only 4.3% of sexual assault cases are reported to police. Kamata says the low number is because victims are afraid to speak up and often blame themselves for what happened.

    The law also made it difficult for victims to press charges because they needed physical proof the offender resorted to violence and intimidation.

    Last year, Kamata learned that the Ministry of Justice was considering revising Japan’s sexual assault laws. Kamata began coordinating and mobilizing groups that support women and victims. She felt that their voices would be louder than if they worked separately.

    "We only have a little bit of resources as one person. But if we can act collectively, we can build power and really change the society," she says.

    The network began organizing symposiums, holding public demonstrations and lobbying influential politicians. They managed to involve people who had not previously been interested in the issue of sexual assault.

    "We tried to make this problem as everyone's problem and not only for a few limited and poor women," Kamata says.

    The group ran an online campaign that collected more than 50,000 signatures which they presented to the Justice Minister.

    The public campaign worked. One of the group's members testified at a Diet hearing to give lawmakers a firsthand account of what it's like to be a victim.

    "I was confused and horrified when my father sexual assaulted me. I froze and couldn't resist. I sincerely pray that the revisions to the law will help victims of sexual violence take action against their attackers," she said.

    Just a few hours later, the bill was unanimously approved.

    "We never imagined that we can realize it, and the law would be passed. So it's kind of unbelievable, but it really makes us happy. And I think that the civic participation maybe matters in Japan," says Kamata.

    But those who advocated for reform say a crucial problem still exists within the law. Victims need to prove they were assaulted or threatened. With the law up for revision in 3 years, they've promised to continue their efforts to enact that change.