Japan's Shame

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TIM LARIMER TokyoPolice superintendent Keiji Goto logs onto his Toshiba laptop, opens his Netscape Internet browser and moves his mouse to the Yahoo! Japan search engine. He types in adult. Down the screen scrolls a list of site categories, many of them with the telltale suffix jp, denoting that they originate in Japan. He clicks on one that promises images of lolitas. The home page appears with a picture of a pig-tailed Japanese girl in a sailor-style school uniform. He clicks again. On the screen appears another teenager, this one naked. Click. A girl is bound and gagged. Click. Another is being fondled. Child pornography, Goto says, is our national shame. It's also the latest export market to be dominated by Japan. The country lags far behind the U.S. in the hottest industry of the 1990s, electronic commerce. Japan has just two of the world's top 100 information-technology companies, according to a Business Week survey, compared with 57 from the U.S. In one area of dubious distinction, however, jp.com competes with the best: child pornography. According to estimates from Interpol, as much as 80% of the child porn available on commercial sites worldwide originates in Japan. A police study found more than 3,000 Websites based in Japan distributing pornography, 40% of them featuring children. Policing porn on the Internet is difficult anywhere, says Ralf Mutschke, assistant director of Interpol's criminal division. But most of the world at least has laws that prohibit child pornography. Japan doesn't.

This lack of legislation frustrates global attempts to crack down. We're asked by international police to help arrest child pornographers, but there's nothing we can do, says Goto, deputy director of the National Police Agency's community safety bureau. Japan's criminal law prohibits sex with minors, but a minor is defined as someone age 12 or younger, and the only act specifically outlawed is sexual intercourse. Taking lewd pictures of children is permissible. Some pornography--both with adults and children--is banned under an obscenity code, but only if it explicitly shows genitalia.

To show how difficult it is to prosecute, Goto zooms in on an onscreen photo of a naked girl. Bright pink Japanese characters spelling secret cover the girl's crotch. Employing special software that can be downloaded for free from other websites, Goto electronically removes the computer-generated fig leaf. Yet even this full frontal nudity can't be legally called obscene. The photo is a little fuzzy there, Goto points out. It's not really clear enough. Some especially sensational cases have been prosecuted. In March, a real-estate company owner was arrested for selling CD-ROMs containing hundreds of child porn videos apiece, all downloaded from the Internet. In January, a schoolteacher was accused of dressing up in wig and skirt to take videos of women bathing at a hot spring resort in Fukui. In March, a mother was arrested for letting men have sex with her 15-year-old daughter for $85 a session. Another mother was sentenced to four years probation in December for taking $850 from an Osaka hospital employee to photograph her 10-year-old daughter in the nude. Last year, a 35-year-old high school teacher in Gifu was accused of taking videos underneath girls' skirts by standing under a staircase.

It's an embarrassment, says Mayumi Moriyama, a member of the lower house of parliament and a former education minister. Anyone who wants to buy, sell or produce child pornography comes to Japan. We make it easy for them. Moriyama, a member of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, joined several opposition lawmakers last week in introducing legislation to crack down on the scourge. A watered-down version of a bill that failed to pass last year, the law is far from perfect. It wouldn't make possession of child porn illegal. And the definition of what kind of pornography is punishable, while broader than the current obscenity code, would remain vague, making prosecution difficult. But the law would impose prison terms of up to three years for people who distribute, sell or display child pornography.

New regulations crafted to control child porn on the Net went into effect last week, but these are weakly worded as well. It requires distributors to register with the police (but threatens no penalties if they do not) and asks Internet service providers to remove objectionable material voluntarily. The ojii-san (old men) don't understand cyberspace, so they don't understand how easy it is for pornographic photos of Japanese children to get sent all over the world, says Yutaka Iimori, a coordinator with the CyberAngels, a group whose 33 volunteers scan the Internet on their home computers and collect pornographic addresses, which are then turned over to the police.
 
 
The standard opposition to any attempt at curbing porn is that it infringes upon free speech, a concept handed to Japan by the U.S. after World War II and, as in America, defended fiercely by activists. I quite agree that we have to fight against the sexual abuse of children, says parliament member Yukio Edano. But we have to weigh that against protecting the rights to free speech.

Preventing people from getting their hands on pornography doesn't seem to be much of a threat right now. The country is awash in child porn, and there's little attempt at hiding it. Subway riders peruse pornographic comics that are explicit, graphic and sometimes violent in their depiction of young girls. Porn outlets dot the landscape of Japanese cities, and even mainstream book shops, newsstands and convenience stores sell explicit material. General interest magazines and newspapers also feature erotic photography, as well as advertisements for sex shops and escorts.

Countless magazines and videos offer images of girls dressed in school uniforms, a favorite fantasy. Girls in physical education classes and at swimming pools sometimes become unknowing subjects of clandestine photographers. Their handiwork ends up filling pages of specialized magazines that show girls in shorts or underwear or undressing in public changing rooms. Much of it ends up on the Internet, as well. We get asked all the time by men to go with them to hotels to take naked pictures, says a 14-year-old girl loitering outside a bar in one of Tokyo's neon-lit entertainment meccas, Ikebukuro. On a rainy Saturday night, the streets are jammed with young girls and male recruiters, called scouts, who try to coax the girls into clubs that feature advertising placards depicting cartoon schoolgirls and come-ons like Let's enjoy play with sexy girls. Usually I say no, she insists. But if they give me 80,000 yen [$675], I'll do it.

Japan has a polite term for the teen-sex peddlers: enjo kosai, which translates as supportive relationship. According to Junko Miyamoto, coordinator of a private group campaigning to stop sexual exploitation of children, the term was invented to make prostitution sound O.K. Of the dozens of girls Time recently interviewed, each said she had been offered money to have sex or be photographed nude. There are myriad ways for male customers to hook up with enjo kosai: karaoke lounges, love hotels, strip clubs, magazine ads and telephone clubs where men sit in a booth and take calls from girls dialing in on their cell phones. The problem is people don't regard this as sexual exploitation, says Miyamoto. They regard it as misbehaving kids.

The common explanation for Japan's tolerance of child porn is that the country is run by a clique of old men with little sensitivity toward women and children. But it's not just old men who are involved. Most of our customers are in their 30s, says Seiji Wasaki, 27, a clerk in a porn shop in Tokyo's Shinjuku entertainment district. Parliament member Edano, at 34 one of Japan's youngest politicians, views it as a matter of choice. You can't neglect the fact that some high school girls quite willingly do this, he says. If the girl and the man agree to exchange money for sex, and if it's really her will, then it is completely the act of individuals and shouldn't be regulated. The problem, Edano says, is that the girls haven't been properly educated to make an informed decision. A man who frequents teen prostitutes (and who prefers not to be identified) claims that two years ago, the going rate for sex with a 16-year-old girl was $250. Today, men want younger partners. A tryst with a 12-year-old costs more than $400.

There's another theory for the obsession with pedophilia: that Japanese men feel threatened by adult women. Many men are incapable of relating to adult women on an equal stance, says Yukihiro Murase, a professor of human sexuality at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University. Whatever the explanation, it won't be easy getting a tough law against child porn through the male-dominated parliament. In fact, a similar effort failed last year. But the exposure of Japan's child porn on the Internet may serve a useful purpose for cracking down on this shameful trade, for it has brought the smut out of the insular world of Japan for all the world to see. We feel embarrassed, says parliament member Moriyama. So now we want to hurry up and do something.

With reporting by Mari Calder, Sachiko Sakamaki, Hiroko Tashiro and Anne Usher/Tokyo