Japanese Youth Challenge Sexual Exploitation Head-on

4 Aug

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO—Fed up with being groped on trains or leered at by older men, 17-year-old Akie Takeda decided last year that she would help raise consciousness among young people to curb sexual harassment and exploitation in Japan.

“It’s not easy in a country where even adults are not aware of the need to protect the rights of children,” says the junior high school student. “The fight is against deep-rooted sexual prejudices in our society,” adds Takeda, who wants to make a full-time job of improving the lives of children once she finishes college.

Right now, she belongs to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) children’s committee in Japan, a group of young people working to make children aware of their rights and come up with ways to protect themselves from sexual exploitation and other problems.

Called the UNICEF Children’s Net, the group has 1,000 members who meet regularly to discuss current issues they see in society, such as child prostitution and youngsters who give sex for money. “We need better education and a stronger citizens’ movement to succeed,” she explains.

Teenage prostitution is among the social problems of concern in a rich country like Japan, which in December plays host to the Second World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Yokohama.

Shocking statistics compiled by researchers indicate that three out of four junior and senior high school students surveyed in Tokyo have experienced solicitation for sex by older men, unusual in a country that boasts of high literacy standards and material success.

“Japan may be materially rich but it is spiritually poor,” explains Dr Takeshi Mashiko, a gynaecologist who runs a clinic in Tokyo. He says the number of female high school students seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases at his clinic is growing, showing an increase in risky sexual activity by young people.

Mashiko attributes this problem to the lack of self-confidence in young women. Relentless pressure on young girls by mass media that treats them as sex objects, coupled with traditional pressure that discourages Japanese girls from openly expressing their feelings, has created a society where sex has become a leading factor in the relationships between men and women, he says.

Takeda herself says one reason she joined the UNICEF youth group was her opposition to the way women are projected on television and in commercials.

“Women appearing on television must always be cute, young, pretty. Even newscasters are simply ornaments. I am against this image because it does not respect women’s real capabilities,” she points out.

Statistics show that almost all high school girls engage in some form of sexual titillation with older men for money or promises of presents.

In a survey by sociology professor Yasuko Muramatsu of the Tokyo Gakugei University, more than 70 percent of girls asked about their first experience of being solicited by men said they found the men’s behaviour distasteful. But they also said they were not scared or offended.

Muramatsu explains that after the first approach, many girls actually get accustomed to solicitation by men and tend to accept their value as being measured by money they get in return for sex.

Fourteen-year-old Arto Tsunano, also with the UNICEF child protection team, says adults are to blame for teenage prostitution. “Teenagers resort to sex trading because there are adults who can pay for these deeds. Why is there no debate about why men do this?” he asks.

Japan’s sex trade goes back centuries, when it was common practice for men to visit brothels or the “water trade” as it is called in Japanese.

But sociologists point out that the recent entry of teenage girls into the trade has raised serious questions about the sex industry which, according to a private think tank, is estimated at more than 16 trillion yen (160 billion U.S. dollars), including the illicit entertainment industry and the underground drug trade.

Hamagin Research Institute reports that schoolgirl prostitution accounts for 56.9 billion yen (475 million dollars) of the total trade, adding that this has been boosted by the rise and accessibility of the sex trade through the Internet.

In June, the Japanese Diet or Parliament, alarmed by the growing cases of ‘enjo kosai’, a euphemism for teenage prostitution, passed a law punishing acts related to child prostitution and child pornography. The law makes violators liable to imprisonment with labour for three years or a fine of one million yen (9,800 dollars).

But activists find the law too weak, and want stiffer fines and penalties to send the message across in male-dominated Japanese society.

Takeda says sex education in schools must be improved to include discussions on such issues as the relationship between sex and marriage. “Sex is treated as a dirty secret among adults,” says Tsunano. “This sends the wrong message to children and encourages the commercialism of sex.”



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