Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien nav lang search
Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

"Whatever it is, it's bad, so stop it!" Political Convictions and Ambivalence in Japan's New Child Sex Legislation

December 2, 1999 / 6.30 P.M.

David Leheny, University of Wisconsin-Madison

With a developing international norm against the sexual exploitation of children, it perhaps was only a matter of time before the Japanese Diet would pass strict legislation, as it did in May 1999, designed to crack down on child pornography and child prostitution. Yet any examination of the politics behind the ban suggests that the outcome was far more complex than the government’s simple decision to deal with its status as a sexual pariah among states. In fact, even a cursory glance at the law and the politics behind it reveals that it has been tailored to suppress the heavily debated practice known as enjo kōsai, or quote;compensated datingquote;, rather than specifically to protect the Southeast Asian children that have been the focus of interest among the proponents of legislative action. The inclusion of enjo kōsai in the bill troubles advocates precisely because of the social ambivalence in Japan about the issue; if these advocates are correct, a reluctance to crack down firmly on enjo kōsai might lead to weakened overall implementation of the legislation, making it ineffective in countering the truly egregious human rights abuses of children in the Asian sex trade.

This presentation examines the politics behind the ban, suggesting that the decision to include enjo kōsai as a component of the new law suggests the limits of theories of international norms in explaining to laws. Most observers immediately suggested that the law reflected Japan’s falling into line with a developing norm against child sexual exploitation, and indeed international pressure and domestic interests groups using that pressure had a clear effect. I argue that the practice of enjo kōsai itself is far less controversial than is the visible representation of child sexuality inherent in the kogyaru style, which has made observers across the political spectrum worry about Japan’s future. In other words, using international pressure regarding the welfare of children particularly in Southeast Asia, conservative lawmakers seized upon the opportunity to re-emphasize a moral order in which children are visibly innocent and are embedded in a system of quote;healthy upbringingquote; (kenzen ikusei). Although the law itself may be effective in countering enjo kōsai, as well as sex tourism and pornography featuring Asian children, this ambivalence — about what enjo kōsai is, and what ought to be done about it — might undermine its broader child welfarist purposes. This points to the intersubjective quality of international norms; unless scholars examine the ethical framework into which the norm is placed by domestic policymakers, they will likely err by seeking answers purely at the level of global society. Without these considerations of ethical difference, scholars will likely create a normative modernization theory, in which all countries are, by accident or by design, catching up to the beliefs of the industrialized West.

David LEHENY, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.