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Japan expands the definition of rape and raises the age of consent to 16 from 13

Members of the House of Councilors vote on a series of legislation to broaden the definition of rape in Japan.
Kazuhiro Nogi
AFP via Getty Images
Members of the House of Councilors vote on a series of legislation to broaden the definition of rape in Japan.

For decades, Japanese law said children as young as 13 were old enough to consent to sexual activities.

The country also only convicted cases of rape that proved the victim tried to fight back. These century-old laws were part of a troubling culture where survivors rarely reported their assault and assailants largely went unpunished.

But on Friday, Japan's parliament passed legislation to redefine rape as nonconsensual sexual intercourse — removing the provisions regarding use of force — and raise the age of consent from 13 to 16. The changes were the result of over four years of protests, known as the Flower Demo, that decried sexual violence and acquittals in rape cases.

One in 14 women had been raped or sexually assaulted in Japan, according to a March 2021 surveyby Japan's Gender Equality Bureau. Meanwhile, less than half of survivors reported the crime, the report also found.

Much of Japanese law related to sexual assault dates back to 1907, and before Friday's historic changes, the country's antiquated penal code narrowly categorized rape as forcible sexual intercourse, meaning prosecutors had to prove that violence or intimidation was involved, or that the victim was unable to resist.

But that definition largely ignored the complex reality that many victims are too afraid, shocked or incapacitated from drugs or alcohol to refuse, advocates found.

The legislation passed on Friday revises the definition of rape to recognize nonconsensual sexual acts such as assaults under the influence of alcohol, drugs, fear or intimidation, according to Kyodo News. They also extended the window of time a survivor can report a rape from 10 to 15 years.

More work needed to change attitudes, advocates say

But that increase isn't enough for some. Spring, an advocacy group for sexual abuse victims in Japan, told NPR that some victims don't process or feel ready to confront their assault until 20 years later. To truly rectify Japan's history of dismissing victims, the statute of limitations should be extended even longer, the organization said in a statement.

In the U.S., the statute of limitations for rape varies by state, including some, like Maryland and Kentucky, which have no statute of limitations for felony sex crimes, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Japan also raised the legal age of consent, so that sexual intercourse with someone under 16 is now considered rape. For a long time, the country had one of the lowest age of consent among developed countries. Now, it is on par with a majorityof states in the U.S.

However, under the new law, sex with a child between 13 and 15 would only be considered a crime if the partner is five or more years older.

The country also passed legislation against "upskirting" or taking sexually exploitative photos of people without their consent, which can now be punishable with up to three years in prison according to the AP.

Spring said that the steps taken by parliament this week are promising but not enough on its own. The group hopes that the new legislation will also educate more people on the seriousness of consent.

NPR's Kat Lonsdorf contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 16, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled statute as statue.
Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.