The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Japanese female lawmaker laughed at for comments on teen exploitation

Protesters in Tokyo march against gender discrimination on March 8, International Women’s Day. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
3 min

TOKYO — At a session of the Japanese parliament this week, a female lawmaker pleaded with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to close a loophole that could make it easier for the adult film industry to exploit teenage girls.

Colleagues’ response to Ayaka Shiomura’s appeal: laughter.

A video clip of the exchange has gone viral on social media in recent days, becoming the latest episode to highlight the lack of female representation if not respect in the male-dominated world of Japanese politics.

Women make up less than 10 percent of the 465-member Japanese parliament. Kishida’s 20-member cabinet will have two women as of April. (Women make up 51 percent of the Japanese population. For context, the U.S. Congress is 27 percent female.)

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In April, Japan will lower its legal age for adulthood to 18 from 20 for the first time in more than 140 years, a move aimed at giving young people more rights and responsibilities and encouraging more civic participation in an aging and shrinking society.

They will have the right to sign employment contracts and lease agreements and apply for credit cards and loans. They can be tried as adults in criminal court. The legal age for drinking, smoking and gambling remains at 20.

Some experts and advocates have raised concerns that, without proper protection and guardrails, the change could harm the most vulnerable young people. Among those are teenage girls who have been targeted by the adult film industry in Japan and coerced to appear in films, human rights advocates say.

Previously, parents could intervene on behalf of underage girls who participated in the films or who changed their minds afterward. If they signed employment contracts as minors, the teens could void them or their parents could do so on their behalf, and they could stop the films from being published.

Last month, Shiomura, an opposition lawmaker, raised the issue in the Japanese Diet and urged lawmakers to come up with a mechanism to allow 18- and 19-year-olds to void their employment contracts for adult films. In response, the Japanese government issued a statement saying that the “issue of coercion to appear in adult videos is considered a serious violation of human rights.”

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But that wasn’t enough for Shiomura and other advocates. Last week, nearly 40,000 people — including former adult film stars and sex workers — signed and submitted an online petition to the government demanding that lawmakers allow 18- and 19-year-olds to void adult-film contracts.

On Monday, lawmakers debated whether current laws protecting people from coercion were adequate. Shiomura proposed a bill, and Kishida responded that the government will “closely monitor” it and “consider how to deal with the issue,” effectively declining to take it up. After some back-and-forth, with Shiomura asking Kishida to “take this issue very seriously,” she conceded that the chamber would not debate the bill.

“Hearing today’s discussions, I guess you’re holding off,” she said.

Then her colleagues laughed.

“Everyone, this is no laughing matter. It is an important issue,” she said. “I hope that instead of laughing, we can work together on this.”

The moment went viral on Japanese social media. One user commented: “This video makes me think that no matter how much it is a man’s world, we really need women in the Diet. Even if they are laughed off, we need people to speak up for us.” Another said: “More than what happened with Will Smith, it was far more shocking to see on the same day, lots of male lawmakers laughing aloud at Shiomura’s comments.”