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The truth about Japan’s sex culture Its archaic laws are only half the problem

A man and geisha, ca 1714. Found in the Collection of British Museum. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A man and geisha, ca 1714. Found in the Collection of British Museum. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


April 21, 2023   5 mins

“Sex is where the weirdness of the Japanese peaks,” wrote A.A. Gill in his notorious “Mad in Japan” essay. Gill went on to catalogue largely anecdotal evidence of what he saw, on his brief visit, as a warped obsession with sex and a culture hard-wired to objectify and infantilise women who were, he asserted, seen simply as handmaidens or sex toys. Such characterisations, once typical, would now generally be dismissed as Japanophobic tropes — but occasionally a story will come along that seems to add fire to Gill’s wisps of smoke.

The Japanese government is considering raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 as part of a package of sex crime reforms. Yes, you read that right, the age of consent in Japan is currently 13, one of the lowest in the world and the lowest in the G7. A justice ministry panel is also recommending redefining rape to make court judgements more consistent. As it stands, it must be proved that not only was sex non-consensual, but that the victim had been unable to resist due to “violence or intimidation”. The new law will allow courts to consider drugging, intoxication, “catching the victim off-guard” and psychological manipulation in their definition. Voyeurism will also be outlawed.

That Japan is only now updating its laws is troubling, as it suggests a society indifferent to the fate of vulnerable minors and sexual assault victims. Just last week, a former J-pop star Kauan Okamoto claimed to have been sexually abused by the now-deceased music producer Johnny Kitagawa when he was 15. He thinks many more boys who worked for Kitagawa were also abused, but were afraid that speaking out would ruin their fledgling pop careers. “I believe that almost all of the boys who went to stay at Johnny’s place were victims,” he told reporters . “I would say 100 to 200 boys stayed there on a rotation basis during my four years at the agency.”

All this appears to add substance to the implications of the “weird Japan” reportage that fixates on the seedy elements of Japanese culture, such as the popularity of disturbingly young girl bands who cavort scantily clad in glossy videos. (Some members of the J-pop band NMB48 are just 14.) But as ever with Japan, things are not what they seem. The salacious Orientalist myth needs to be separated from the more prosaic reality. For one thing, it’s not exactly true to say the age of consent in Japan is 13. Most prefectures (or counties) interpret laws against “lewd acts” to include sex with minors. This means the real age of consent in much of the country is 18 — though penalties for “lewd acts” are generally lighter.

Still, that hardly explains why Japan’s sex crime laws haven’t been updated since the late Meiji period. The answer may lie in Japan’s traditional “black box” attitude to sexual crime. In a culture where direct expressions of opinion or intent are considered impolite and injurious to societal harmony, and everything is caveated or left unsaid, it is often considered too difficult to determine what happens in the “black box” of an intimate encounter between two individuals. The police and judiciary would rather not be asked to get involved — and nebulous sex crime laws that deter victims from coming forward have long suited them. Of course, it also benefitted predatory men.

Then there is the fact that the public was, until recently, largely unaware of the flaws of the outdated laws. Japan has a low official rate of sex crime at 1.02 per 100,000 citizens (the UK’s figure is 27), and horrific stories of abuse do not appear on the news. Nor does sexual abuse ever feature as a storyline in TV dramas. In the absence of compelling evidence of a problem, the dusty old ordinance remained on the statute books as there simply wasn’t any clamour for change.

That is, until recently. Japan is at its most dynamic and progressive when it feels the world’s gaze upon it, a phenomenon known as gaiatsu (“outside pressure”). Not all Western-inspired protest movements translate to Japan (BLM flopped), but MeToo took off in 2017. The behaviour of celebrities came under intense focus, with particular attention paid to how “talents” interacted with their very young fans. In 2017 the bassist of the band Tokio quit after forcing a kiss on a high-school girl, and actor Keisuke Koide had his contracts for TV dramas cancelled when it was revealed he had slept with a 17-year-old. Then, in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, was forced to step down after implying that women talked too much in meetings. The director of the opening ceremony was sacked for likening the female star to a pig.

At the heart of Japan’s MeToo movement was Shiori Itō, a journalist and filmmaker whose rape allegations against a high-profile colleague saw her awarded substantial damages in 2019. Her memoir Black Box, published in 2017, became a bestseller, and she has since campaigned to change Japan’s century-old rape laws.

Ito’s story raised many awkward questions in Japan. Those impressively low crime statistics came under scrutiny: a government survey in 2019 found that only 14% of victims of sexual assault had reported the crime. And the survey only questioned those aged 16 and above. The reasons given were a lack of faith in the police, a belief that their trauma was unimportant, and shame. In a country where stoic endurance is prized and maintaining societal harmony is considered of far greater value than personal suffering, underreporting is a serious issue.

However, there is a limit to Japan’s tolerance. In 2019, a series of technical acquittals in four sex abuse cases involving minors sparked outrage. This included a horrific case in Nagoya, where a man was acquitted despite the judge acknowledging he had repeatedly raped his teenage daughter and had threatened to beat her if she refused. The judgement hinged on whether the young woman could have resisted: the judge ruled she could have done. A higher court overruled the judgement, and the man was given a 10-year sentence, but the dangers of the ossified penal code had been exposed and calls for changes to the law intensified.

Gaiatsu may be a factor in the timing of the proposed changes. Japan will host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who was schooled in the US and is on a mission to harmonise Japanese society with Western norms — will not want any embarrassment spoiling his showpiece.

Kishida has already made efforts to rid Japan, which is ranked 116 out of 146 in the gender gap index, of its chauvinist reputation. Last June’s Intensive Policy for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women required firms to disclose their gender pay gaps; last December, Japan hosted the sixth World Assembly for Women, featuring luminaries such as Malala Yousafzai and Christine Lagarde. Kishida is likely to welcome the justice ministry’s sex crime reforms and push through the necessary legislation swiftly.

This is all well and good, except that the proposals appear to be more about sanitising Japan’s international image than protecting vulnerable young people. The bar for rape conviction will remain high: Human Rights Now have said it will still fail to meet international standards. Whether the new policy will cut through on the international stage is also in doubt. Two weeks ago, thousands of tourists flocked to Kawasaki to attend its annual Penis Festival — much to the mirth of the Western press. But what foreigners often don’t realise is that the defining aspect of Japanese sex culture isn’t, as A.A. Gill claimed, its weirdness — but its secrecy.


Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.
@Pbp19Philip

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Sophy T
ST
Sophy T
1 year ago

Of course BLM didn’t take off in Japan – it would be like expecting Eskimos Lives Matter to take off in Indonesia

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 year ago

Of course BLM didn’t take off in Japan – it would be like expecting Eskimos Lives Matter to take off in Indonesia

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
1 year ago

“In a country where stoic endurance is prized and maintaining societal harmony is considered of far greater value than personal suffering”
We sure as hell can’t have that!

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

The left cannot seem to resist its missionary impulse to convert the world to their pseudo-religion. This is an issue for the people of Japan to decide according to THEIR values, THEIR courts, and THEIR elected officials, yet western journalists can’t seem to help sticking their judgmental noses into everyone else’s business, and they don’t even have a leg of credibility to stand on. After all, the incidence of sex crimes, and most every other kind of crime, is far lower in Japan than in most western societies. The author concedes as much, but when has mankind ever let little things like facts stand in the way of a holy crusade? He clearly has done a lot of research about the culture, but like some Jesuit missionary from bygone days, his primary motivation seems to be converting the heathen savages.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Didn’t the Japanese eventually crucify the Jesuits?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

I would have to look that up but I believe so. They were among the several European groups that tried and failed utterly to open Japanese society to trade and foreign influence for hundreds of years. The US succeeded with a somewhat more direct approach. Japan and the US have a certain synergy which I attribute to our shared appreciation for pragmatism rather than idealism.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Actually I think the Japanese were somewhat revolted by Commodore Perry’s ridiculously gauche approach but did realise they had to modernise and fast.

Rather satisfyingly they decided to emulate Great Britain and NOT the somewhat adolescent USA.As such we had a very fruitful and amicable relationship up until the disastrous Washington Disarmament Treaty of 1922.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Actually I think the Japanese were somewhat revolted by Commodore Perry’s ridiculously gauche approach but did realise they had to modernise and fast.

Rather satisfyingly they decided to emulate Great Britain and NOT the somewhat adolescent USA.As such we had a very fruitful and amicable relationship up until the disastrous Washington Disarmament Treaty of 1922.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

Sic semper missionaries. St. Francis Xavier opined that the Japanese language was invented by the Devill, to frustrate the propagation of the Gospel. Ironically, he was a Basque.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

Very good, thank you!

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

Very good, thank you!

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Must have been long ago. Attended Sophia University and was taught by several Jesuits. Vow of poverty, but observed excellent Scotch in quarters.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

Well, the Shogun did.

Josef O
Josef O
11 months ago

Yes Portuguese Jesuits were crucified in Japan after the Tokugawa decree in 1614 which isolated Japan for about 240 years.
The Portuguese were doing incredible business between Japan and China. They were shipping silver from Japan to their colony in China, Macao. At the time official money in China was silver coins. So the Chinese were exchanging gold for silver at the weight ratio of 1:1 !!! Macao accumulated unbelievable wealth which lasted till the 20th century.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

I would have to look that up but I believe so. They were among the several European groups that tried and failed utterly to open Japanese society to trade and foreign influence for hundreds of years. The US succeeded with a somewhat more direct approach. Japan and the US have a certain synergy which I attribute to our shared appreciation for pragmatism rather than idealism.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

Sic semper missionaries. St. Francis Xavier opined that the Japanese language was invented by the Devill, to frustrate the propagation of the Gospel. Ironically, he was a Basque.

Hardee Hodges
HH
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

Must have been long ago. Attended Sophia University and was taught by several Jesuits. Vow of poverty, but observed excellent Scotch in quarters.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

Well, the Shogun did.

Josef O
Josef O
11 months ago

Yes Portuguese Jesuits were crucified in Japan after the Tokugawa decree in 1614 which isolated Japan for about 240 years.
The Portuguese were doing incredible business between Japan and China. They were shipping silver from Japan to their colony in China, Macao. At the time official money in China was silver coins. So the Chinese were exchanging gold for silver at the weight ratio of 1:1 !!! Macao accumulated unbelievable wealth which lasted till the 20th century.

Graham Strugnell
GS
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The writer makes the point that stats for crime may seem very low because most victims do not report crimes that happen to them. However, I agree that western journalists always want to tar and feather Japan without taking into account the value of stoicism and harmony, two things our fractured and angry culture has abandoned in favour of a grievance culture.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“The incidence of sex crimes is far lower in Japan”. Perhaps it’s the incidence of reported sex crimes that’s lower.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I did ask my daughter why she was campaigning against FGM in the Middle East, but not against the MGM and FGM promoted by the trans paedos, but she didn’t really have an answer.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Didn’t the Japanese eventually crucify the Jesuits?

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The writer makes the point that stats for crime may seem very low because most victims do not report crimes that happen to them. However, I agree that western journalists always want to tar and feather Japan without taking into account the value of stoicism and harmony, two things our fractured and angry culture has abandoned in favour of a grievance culture.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“The incidence of sex crimes is far lower in Japan”. Perhaps it’s the incidence of reported sex crimes that’s lower.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I did ask my daughter why she was campaigning against FGM in the Middle East, but not against the MGM and FGM promoted by the trans paedos, but she didn’t really have an answer.

Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

And there was this wise gem:
“In a culture where direct expressions of opinion or intent are considered impolite and injurious to societal harmony…”

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

The left cannot seem to resist its missionary impulse to convert the world to their pseudo-religion. This is an issue for the people of Japan to decide according to THEIR values, THEIR courts, and THEIR elected officials, yet western journalists can’t seem to help sticking their judgmental noses into everyone else’s business, and they don’t even have a leg of credibility to stand on. After all, the incidence of sex crimes, and most every other kind of crime, is far lower in Japan than in most western societies. The author concedes as much, but when has mankind ever let little things like facts stand in the way of a holy crusade? He clearly has done a lot of research about the culture, but like some Jesuit missionary from bygone days, his primary motivation seems to be converting the heathen savages.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Cho Jinn

And there was this wise gem:
“In a culture where direct expressions of opinion or intent are considered impolite and injurious to societal harmony…”

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
1 year ago

“In a country where stoic endurance is prized and maintaining societal harmony is considered of far greater value than personal suffering”
We sure as hell can’t have that!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Given that Japan appears to have little or no infestation from the global warming/LGBT/ Racism pandemic, we should be learning from them?

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Precisely, although I don’t think I’d be tempted to eat live frogs for breakfast!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMPLXNpSM1A

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

They also have a unique form of Capital Punishment which we could learn from.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Dropping not one, but TWO Atomic Bombs, does seem to have had the most beneficial and indeed unexpected result, it must be said.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

If only some kindly power would drop four or five on us…

Dominic S
Dominic S
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

At least, on Slough….

Dominic S
Dominic S
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

At least, on Slough….

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
1 year ago

If only some kindly power would drop four or five on us…

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Precisely, although I don’t think I’d be tempted to eat live frogs for breakfast!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMPLXNpSM1A

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

They also have a unique form of Capital Punishment which we could learn from.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

Dropping not one, but TWO Atomic Bombs, does seem to have had the most beneficial and indeed unexpected result, it must be said.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Given that Japan appears to have little or no infestation from the global warming/LGBT/ Racism pandemic, we should be learning from them?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
1 year ago

“… and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who was schooled in the US and is on a mission to harmonise Japanese society with Western norm …”
Be careful what you wish for – rape seems all but decriminalised in the UK.

Dominic S
Dominic S
11 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Certainly seems to be in Scotland.

Dominic S
Dominic S
11 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Certainly seems to be in Scotland.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
1 year ago

“… and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who was schooled in the US and is on a mission to harmonise Japanese society with Western norm …”
Be careful what you wish for – rape seems all but decriminalised in the UK.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Luminaries such as the convict Christine Legarde?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Luminaries such as the convict Christine Legarde?

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

Projecting Western cultural norms on a very different but equally viable thought system is as silly as putting trousers on pets. Japan’s culture for instance gave us bunraku, an amazing theatrical form. The handlers of the 3/4 size marionettes walk behind them, dressed in black, and so are officially invisible. Officially not seeing something is not the same as saying it isn’t there.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

Projecting Western cultural norms on a very different but equally viable thought system is as silly as putting trousers on pets. Japan’s culture for instance gave us bunraku, an amazing theatrical form. The handlers of the 3/4 size marionettes walk behind them, dressed in black, and so are officially invisible. Officially not seeing something is not the same as saying it isn’t there.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

The Shunga of Japan with their exaggerated genitalia as ordinary art that could be given as presents to newly wed girls certainly suggests a fairly unusual open attitude to sex in Japan.

it was certainly interesting to learn of the equally unusual legal elements as far as the age of consent and rape are concerned and the cultural habits that have sustained them until recently.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

The Shunga of Japan with their exaggerated genitalia as ordinary art that could be given as presents to newly wed girls certainly suggests a fairly unusual open attitude to sex in Japan.

it was certainly interesting to learn of the equally unusual legal elements as far as the age of consent and rape are concerned and the cultural habits that have sustained them until recently.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

A lot of justice in Japan is held behind the scenes, not in open courts. Like many things, minor criminals are often held to account by real gangsters who do not permit unsanctioned crime.
Can’t imagine a visitor ever grasping the Japanese culture, so unlike most western cultures. Many elements are not observable from the outside. Concepts of obligation are built into the culture as are roles in society set by tradition.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

A lot of justice in Japan is held behind the scenes, not in open courts. Like many things, minor criminals are often held to account by real gangsters who do not permit unsanctioned crime.
Can’t imagine a visitor ever grasping the Japanese culture, so unlike most western cultures. Many elements are not observable from the outside. Concepts of obligation are built into the culture as are roles in society set by tradition.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
1 year ago

‘…western norms…’ ‘…international standards…’
Pffft! Japan’s social arrangements and laws are a matter for the Japanese and no one else.
And ‘luminaries such as …Christine Lagarde.’ Is the author trying to be funny? In 2016, a French court convicted her of criminal negligence.

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
1 year ago

‘…western norms…’ ‘…international standards…’
Pffft! Japan’s social arrangements and laws are a matter for the Japanese and no one else.
And ‘luminaries such as …Christine Lagarde.’ Is the author trying to be funny? In 2016, a French court convicted her of criminal negligence.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

As at 15.33 BST.only four comments have avoided the Censor’s wrath.
So all in all a rather pointless exercise, as all debate is thus stifled .

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

As at 15.33 BST.only four comments have avoided the Censor’s wrath.
So all in all a rather pointless exercise, as all debate is thus stifled .

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

UnHerd don’t bother to put such articles into ‘special measures’ it just completely destroys the discussion (banter), so what is the point?

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

UnHerd don’t bother to put such articles into ‘special measures’ it just completely destroys the discussion (banter), so what is the point?

Last edited 1 year ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

20.58 BST. The Censor has retired to bed!
Conversation over.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

20.58 BST. The Censor has retired to bed!
Conversation over.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
11 months ago

I saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts unknown’ in Japan, focusing on the sex industry. It was eye opener about how accepting and out in the open the culture is about anything sexual, particularly young women working as dominatrixes. They understood the need for that in a country where gender roles are so rigid. Understandably,the young women seemed to really enjoy the switch.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
11 months ago

I saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts unknown’ in Japan, focusing on the sex industry. It was eye opener about how accepting and out in the open the culture is about anything sexual, particularly young women working as dominatrixes. They understood the need for that in a country where gender roles are so rigid. Understandably,the young women seemed to really enjoy the switch.