Japan is cracking down on cyberbullying, imposing harsher penalties for online abuse. Last week Japan’s Diet passed a bill to amend the penal code, making “insults” on the internet punishable with a one-year prison sentence and maximum fine of $2,500. But there are concerns that the ambiguous distinction between an insult and criticism could have a negative impact on the freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution.
The amendments were sparked following the death of professional wrestler and reality TV star Kimura Hana, 22, who committed suicide in 2020 after receiving a barrage of hateful messages on social media. Kimura’s mother Kyoko campaigned to toughen the penalties for cyberbullying after the two perpetrators behind the social media abuse were given a slap on the wrist – under existing laws, they were eligible for a light prison sentence of less than 30 days and a fine of no more than 10,000 yen (approximately $73).
Kimura Kyoko welcomed the amendment, arguing that the penal code was not tough enough to prevent people from reoffending. Most of the criminal complaints filed have typically resulted in fines of 9,000 yen – the equivalent of $65.
It is the first time in 115 years that categories and penalties in the penal code have been amended. The Ministry of Justice says imprisonment will carry a “rehabilitation” component as opposed to punishment and will tailor education programs around individual circumstances.
During deliberations in the Diet, the Constitutional Democratic Party opposed the bill, saying it would make it impossible to freely criticize politicians in public spaces. They also expressed concerns that the revised law would give law enforcement power to crack down arbitrarily on legitimate criticism against politicians and police officers and issue spot arrests rather than simply removing a person from the scene.
In 2019 when Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was giving a public speech in Sapporo, Hokkaido, a disgruntled member of the public was arrested for calling Abe to quit. The Hokkaido police argued the remark was a violation of the freedom of expression but lost the case.
Japan’s penal code addresses the “crime of defamation,” which is committed when someone harms the reputation or status of another while “showing facts” such as publicly exposing someone’s extramarital affair. However, remarks intended to serve public interest and where facts can be verified are exempt from punishment. Criticism of politicians is not illegal if it falls under this special exemption.
The “crime of insult,” on the other hand, takes place when someone publicly insults another person without highlighting any facts. Posts or public remarks containing words such as “ugly,” “idiot,” or “creepy” could warrant arrest if the victim files a complaint. The government said such remarks could be held criminally liable in principle, but they will take a “practical” approach when reviewing cases.
The opposition pushed for an additional provision that stipulates a three-year review by outside experts to determine if the law is an unreasonable restriction on free speech.
Cyberbullying is on the rise as Japan embraces social media and video sharing platforms. The internet has become a central piece of social infrastructure. In Japan, 81 percent of the population are avid social network users. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Consultation Center for Illegal and Harmful Information says it received some 6,000 enquiries relating to online abuse. The figure has quadrupled over the last 10 years and primarily relates to abuse on Twitter, Google, and Facebook (now rebranded as Meta). The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is requesting that online platforms voluntarily update user guidelines before the ministry provides regulations advising platforms on how to address changes to the law.
The “crime of insult” covers a wide range of insults and abusive expressions. But in 2020 only 30 people were convicted for the “crime of insult” versus 129 people found guilty of defamation. The figure is low due to the anonymity of users and the reluctance of platforms such as Twitter to disclose the personal information of users within the one-year statute of limitations.