Online abuse in Japan can now be punished with up to a year in jail

A gavel on a desk.
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Japan has increased the punishment for the crime of 'insults', which now carries a possible sentence of one year in prison and a fine of ¥300,000 (around $2,600). The statute of limitations has also been increased from one year to three years. Previously, the maximum punishment was less than thirty days in prison and a fine of ¥10,000 JPY ($75).

The amendment to Japan's penal code was passed on Monday by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, supported by various minor parties, and will come into effect 20 days after passing (thanks, NHK Japan).

While it applies to both online and real-world insults, the public debate began in 2020 after the suicide of reality television star Hana Kimura, a 22 year-old wrestler who was in the Netflix series Terrace House. Kimura's death sparked outrage about the online abuse and harassment she had faced, some of which she had shared online the same day she died, and Japanese legislators pledged to fast-track consultations about updating its laws to account for the phenomenon of cyber-bullying.

Three men were investigated in relation to Kimura's death. Two paid fines of ¥9,000.

The amendment was only passed after legislators agreed to add a provision, a three-year 'sunset' clause that orders the changes be re-examined. This is because it has plenty of opponents who argue that it could be used to stifle free speech and suppress criticism of powerful figures.

There's also the age-old problem of what, exactly, constitutes an insult. Article 231 of Japan's penal code does not really define 'Insults', saying: "A person who insults another in public, even if it does not allege facts, shall be punished by misdemeanor imprisonment without work or a petty fine." Japan also has the crime of defamation, which has more severe penalties.

"There needs to be a guideline that makes a distinction on what qualifies as an insult," Japanese lawyer Seiho Cho told CNN. "For example, at the moment, even if someone calls the leader of Japan an idiot, then maybe under the revised law that could be classed as an insult."

After the amendment was passed Hana Kimura's mother said at a press conference that she had pushed for the change because the existing penalties were not tough enough. "I wanted people to know that this is a crime,” said Kyoko Kimura.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."