Online insults in Japan can lead to one year in prison

Japan passed a bill that makes online insults punishable by up to one year in prison. The law will be revised in three years if it turns out to restrict freedom of speech.

House of Councillors of Japan on June 13 that voted the law against online insults
House of Councillors of Japan on June 13 that voted the law against online insults

The House of Councillors, Japan’s legislative upper house, on June 13 passed a bill that makes online insults a crime punishable by prison.

Online insults will now be punishable of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to 300,000 yen ($2,200). Insults were previously subject to 30 days in prison in very rare occasions, and up to a 10,000-yen fine ($74). Moreover, the statute of limitations will be extended from one year to three years.

The debate on a law with tougher sanctions for online insults was revived after the death of Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old professional wrestler and cast member of the Terrace House, a popular Netflix reality television show.

She committed suicide in May 2020. Her death is believed to have been the consequence of a series of insults and hateful messages she was receiving on social media. She had written she couldn’t deny how hurt she was from the more than 100 messages she received daily and that she didn’t want to be “a human anymore“. Her last Instagram post said: “I love you, have a long, happy life. I’m sorry.

Two men were fined 9,000 yen ($67) each after having insulted Ms. Kimura, a sentence considered too light which sparked the debate for tougher sanctions against cyberbullying.

But critics of the bill said the current law would limit freedom of expression, arguing it could restrict legitimate criticism of politicians and public officials. They fear that public figures could use of the law to say they are insulted to avoid criticism.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations in March had released a note to the ministry of justice and the House of Councillors arguing the bill was “inappropriate as it atrophies legitimate commentary and threatens freedom of expression“.

Up until now, insults were punished lightly as they didn’t reveal a specific fact that could risk the honor of a person, unlike libel.

In Japan, an insult is an “indication of contempt for others“. The crime of insult is widely punishable regardless of the method of expression of contempt towards another person. Defamation takes place when someone openly shares facts that can damage a person’s reputation. In Japan,

However, libel doesn’t apply to matters of public interest, which was not included in the law against online insults. As a consequence, “even a commentary on a matter of public interest may be subject to punishment if it contains an expression of contempt towards another person,” the Japan Federation of Bar Associations denounced.

A provision was added so that the law will be revised within three years if it turns out to unfairly restrict free speech. This provision allowed the opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, to agree with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on the legislation.

Which insults will be punishable remain however unclear. The public aspect in the definition of an insult in the Japanese penal code aims at the social reputation damage, which doesn’t grasp the harm made to a person’s feelings, self-esteem and inner trauma caused by toxic messages.

The attorney association had asked to go further for removing the anonymity of the senders of toxic messages, strengthen financial compensation received by victims and enhance civil lawsuits rather than criminal sentences.

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