Japan changed its definition of rape and raised the age of consent to 16, from 13, on Friday, bringing the country’s sex crimes laws closer in line with those in the United States and Europe.
The new law — passed unanimously by the Upper House of Parliament and therefore now fully adopted — defines rape as “nonconsensual sexual intercourse” and removes a previous requirement that the crime include physical force. Until now, Japan’s laws on sexual assault did not mention consent, reflecting skepticism that anyone could be forced into sex without violence.
Japan previously had one of the lowest ages of consent among wealthy countries, leaving children vulnerable to sexual abuse by adults. Still, under the new law, for victims between the ages of 13 and 15, sex would be considered a crime only if the partner is five or more years older than the child. The new law, which had been approved by the House of Representatives in May, is the first time Japan has changed its age of consent in more than 100 years.
The new law outlines various conditions under which a person might be afraid to say no to sex, even if not directly threatened with violence. Those situations include when a victim has consumed alcohol or drugs or when an offender “frightens or startles” them.
Laws in the United States and some European countries have already taken into account that a person may not be able to provide consent because of illness or intoxication, or that an offender could exploit a situation of authority.
Until now, because of the high bar for a sexual assault to be officially classified as rape in Japan, few victims have brought criminal charges. When Shiori Ito, a journalist, alleged that a prominent television journalist had raped her when she was unconscious and unable to give consent, prosecutors declined to file charges. Ms. Ito later won damages in a civil case against Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington bureau chief of the Tokyo Broadcasting System, when a judge accepted her account of the assault.
Activists for victims of sexual assault had long argued that Japan’s rape laws were antiquated because of the absence of any mention of consent and the low age of consent.
Earlier this year, Meiko Sano unsuccessfully sued her former professor for sexual harassment, alleging he had taken advantage of his supervisory position to groom her for a relationship that she said she could not consent to. Lawyers and activists who support sexual assault victims have long argued that the law should account for the fact that people who fear reprisals from teachers, bosses or others with authority cannot freely consent to sex.
At a news conference after the bill’s passage on Friday, Kazuko Ito, a lawyer who has represented sexual assault victims, said it was a “great step forward.”
“It is highly significant that the victims who have been excluded from justice are now within the scope of legal remedies and punishments,” Ms. Ito said.
The new law also addresses acts of groping or incidents where adults “psychologically control” children on social networking sites. It also extended the statute of limitations for filing rape charges to 15 years, from 10.
Hikari Hida contributed reporting.