Before Polaris Project Japan opened its doors in 2005, we conducted a series of focus groups on various communities’ understandings of human trafficking. When it came to sex trafficking, I was shocked when a number of Japanese male respondents openly talked about their comfort in engaging in commercial sex with children. At first, I hoped those responses were outliers. Unfortunately, as our work began in Japan, I quickly absorbed the reality of how challenging it would be to combat child sex trafficking in a country where the broader commercial sex industry makes up 1 percent of its GNP (equaling Japan’s entire national defense budget!).
It’s within this context that we rally around a significant win through a recent partnership with Amazon Japan, a primary mainstream distributor of “junior idol” products in the country. Junior idols products feature pre-pubescent girls who are seeking to become teenage pop stars and models in Japan. Parents of junior idols hope that exposure through DVDs and photobooks will help their daughters become entertainment superstars. The junior idol business largely achieves this through graphic sexualized content, explicitly showcasing children as young as eight years old in revealing clothing and provocative poses, often crossing the line into child pornography.
This May, after Polaris Project Japan tagged 136 junior idol products sold on Amazon Japan’s website for meeting Japan’s legal definition of child pornography, the company decided to remove 84 items from their online store. This is just one example of how legitimate businesses can partner with the community to avoid becoming a marketing arm for human traffickers. Since Amazon Japan’s announcement, Polaris Project Japan has received a request from a major Japanese bookstore chain to look into its own product line. I hope more businesses will follow suit.
Even with this recent victory, we still need the Japanese government to take more action in the international fight against child pornography. The US ambassador to Japan was quoted describing a California-based investigation, where FBI agents uncovered violent sexual abuse images of Japanese children Mari* and Jun*, a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. A UNICEF representative also recently shared stories of how pedophiles use cartoon-based child pornography to teach their child victims how to normalize their abuse. Japan’s current laws are not only harming international investigations into child pornography rings, but are helping to facilitate the continued sexual abuse of children.
In 1999, after INTERPOL estimated that 80 percent of websites with child pornography originated in Japan, the Japanese government made the distribution of child pornography illegal. The production of child pornography only became illegal in 2004! Unfortunately, the possession of child pornography is still legal in Japan, making it only one of two countries (the other being Russia) in the G-8 not in compliance with international legal standards on this issue (US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1999, 25 February 2000).
With mounting international pressure, the Japanese Diet finally introduced a bill to address this issue at the end of last year. That said, the legislation has not yet been ratified and there are still debates on what types of images and media these laws will actually outlaw.
The greatest evidence of the uphill challenge ahead is the widespread acceptance of this crime; today, only 70 percent of Japanese adults believe it should be illegal to own child pornography.