Japan's fruitless struggle to bring its child porn market to justice

 

It was a shocking find: crudely made DVDs with images of grown men having sex with children as young as 12.

Until this year, the men who bought those images faced little more than a slap on the wrist. But police in Kyoto decided for the first time during the summer to pursue criminal charges against three male customers in a country widely seen as too lenient on child pornography.

The police campaign is largely the work of Kyoto's prefectural Governor, Keiji Yamada. During his fight for office two years ago, Mr Yamada pledged to roll out an ordinance banning the buying and possession of child porn – still legal under Japanese law, unless there is proven intent to sell or distribute. Even if the makers are arrested, the images circulate for years on the internet.

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. "The internet is probably the biggest factor," Akira Koga, spokesman for the Kyoto Police, said. "It's very difficult to monitor and control." A new police cyber patrol uncovered the trail back to the three men from the DVD producer in Tokyo.

Japan has long been considered a hub for the production and possession of child-porn images. It is the only OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) nation that has not banned possession of child porn, partly to protect its manga and anime industries, which churn out thousands of titles every year that sail close to the legal wind.

A government survey in 2002 found that 10 per cent of Japanese men admitted to owning child porn at some stage. Bookstores and convenience stores across the country stock magazines carrying semi-naked pictures of pubescent and pre-pubescent children. Many underage girls have built careers as so-called "junior idols", posing suggestively. 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. Campaigners engaged in a cat-mouse-game with paedophiles across the world say a new approach is long overdue. "The US is very frustrated with Japan," says Jake Adelstein, a journalist and board member with the Polaris Project Japan, a non-profit organisation that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation. "The FBI and Homeland Security Investigations give Japan's police hundreds of tips on child pornography makers and distributors every year and none of them are acted upon."

Opinion polls suggest that most Japanese voters want stricter laws. But with parliament gridlocked ahead of a general election expected this autumn, there is little appetite for a messy political fight over what is seen as a relatively minor issue.

As if to underline the legal challenges ahead, Kyoto police say prosecutors have declined to press charges against the three men, citing a lack of evidence.

Comments