June 16, 2022
TOKYO – Japan has toughened its punishment for insult, after relentless social media abuse led to the suicide of a reality television star.
Professional wrestler Hana Kimura, 22, died in 2020 after she faced a barrage of online vitriol against her outspoken behaviour on Terrace House: Tokyo, a hit series on Japan’s Fuji Television and streaming giant Netflix.
Under a Bill passed by Parliament on Monday (June 13) and expected to take effect this year, those who are found guilty of insult will face a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 300,000 yen (S$3,100), or both.
This was raised from the current penalty of detention of less than 30 days, or a fine of less than 10,000 yen.
The statute of limitations for insult will also be extended from one to three years, giving a victim more time to file charges.
Before her death, Ms Kimura had described on Twitter the frequent online bullying she faced and alluded to self-harm. She told her followers that she did not want to live anymore.
Her untimely death led to an outpouring of grief and, subsequently, an uproar after it emerged that two men – one from Osaka Prefecture and the other from Fukui Prefecture – got off with a fine of just 9,000 yen for their harsh insults, such as “you’re disgusting” and “just die” .
Ms Kimura’s high-profile death led politicians to chime in on the urgency to update laws to prevent cyber bullying.
Japan’s Justice Ministry defines insult as the act of publicly demeaning someone’s social standing without referencing any specific facts or actions. This is unlike defamation, which refers to the act of demeaning publicly while pointing to falsehoods.
The law, however, does not define the degree to which an insult will be considered punishable, leading to concerns that it will have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.
Much of the parliamentary debate focused on how best to walk the thin line between the need to stiffen regulations for a social media age, and the need to protect freedom of speech as is guaranteed under the Constitution.
The Bill was only passed after a provision was added that the law be reviewed three years after it takes effect to gauge the impact on freedom of expression.
Ms Kimura’s mother Kyoko praised the passage of the Bill at a news conference on Monday, saying that it was “about time”.
“There was never a deterrent until now,” she said. “I hope that people will come to recognise that spewing insults on social media can hurt others. Before posting anything, please stop and consider the ramifications.”
But the lack of clarity over what constitutes “insults” has raised concerns that opposition politicians and social commentators may be targeted, if they criticise the people behind official government policy.
“There is a risk that society may become very scary,” lawyer Seiho Cho of the Daini Tokyo Bar Association told public broadcaster NHK.
“If one makes a critical statement of the government that includes some form of insult, one may someday suddenly be shown an arrest warrant.”
The Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency said, however, that fair commentary will not be subject to punishment.
And for actions such as spur-of-the-moment heckling, they said: “While it is legally possible to arrest the offender, this is not actually expected.”