A revision of Japan's century-old criminal law came into force on Thursday, imposing tougher prison terms for sex offenders and bringing changes that allow the state to prosecute even if charges are not brought by a victim.
The legislation, passed last month, marked the first revision to the law since it was enacted during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The sweeping changes came in response to calls by victims and their supporters for heavier punishment for sex crimes.
Under the revised law, the minimum sentence for rape is raised to five years from the previous three, while the definition of rape is broadened to also include male victims. Previously rape could only be perpetrated on a female under the law.
Despite the severe physical and psychological impacts rape victims suffer, those committing the offense have seen shorter minimum sentences than the five years handed out for the much less serious charge of robbery, for example.
Under the revised penal code, victims will also no longer be required to press charges in order for an alleged rape or molestation offender to be prosecuted. Many rapes go unreported or unpunished as victims are reluctant to open themselves up to the emotional toll and stigma associated with victims of sexual assault in Japan.
The law can be retroactively applied, in principle, to cases that occurred before the revision took effect.
Despite calls to do so, the amended law did not drop a requirement that to establish an assault as rape, the perpetrator must have used force or threatened the victim.
Previously, parents or guardians could not be charged with domestic sexual abuse if force or threats were not involved, but under the changes, they can now be punished for sexual abuse of children under the age of 18 who are in their care even in the absence of coercive acts.
As guardians are defined as someone who is housing or financially supporting a child in their care, it does not cover people such as teachers and sports instructors.
There are growing calls to widen the scope of the law to define as rape sexual assaults by non-guardians that do not involve force or threats.
The law also raises the minimum sentence for rape resulting in death or injury from five to six years.
Still, some legal experts say that harsher penalties alone cannot prevent sex criminals from reoffending and are urging improvements in rehabilitation programs for released offenders.
A bill revising the penal code was compiled after an advisory panel to the justice minister issued a report last September calling for changes. The bill was approved by the Cabinet in March, cleared parliament last month and was enacted on June 16.