Japan’s parliament approved penalizing criminal defamation by up to one year in prison after the suicide of a young reality television star prompted a national debate over cyberbullying.
The country decided to strengthen its defamation law after Hana Kimura took her own life at just 22-years-old in 2020.
Kimura, a professional wrestler, was subject to a daily barrage of insults on social media after she appeared on the massively popular Japanese reality show “Terrace House,” which follows three men and three women temporarily living together at a shared house in Tokyo.
She received hateful messages after her performance was criticized in one of the episodes. Just before her suicide in May 2020, she tweeted about the hundreds of vile messages a day that hurt her.
Ultimately, two people were convicted of defaming Kimura, but were only fined 9,000 yen — or $66. The low fine, comparable to a New York City alternate side parking ticket, sparked outrage who felt the punishment was far too lenient.
Her death triggered a spirited debate over anonymous bullying and the extent of freedom of speech protections in Japan.
Opponents to the change argued the law would impact free speech and thwart criticism of those in power. Supporters said tougher legislation was necessary to crack down on cyberbullying and online harassment.
The charge to change the law was led by Kimura’s mother, Kyoko, who is also a famous professional wrestler. Parliamentary debates on the law have been taking place since January.
The amended law adds a prison term of one year—with an option of forced labor—and creases fines to up to 300,000 yen ($2,220) to convicted violators. It will go into effect later this summer.
Currently, the law only holds a punishment of short-term detention and fines of less than 10,000 yen ($74).
Due to the controversy, the law only passed after it was agreed to be reviewed by outside experts every three years.
Japanese criminal attorney Seiho Cho warned that the legislation is unclear as to what constitutes an insult.
“There needs to be a guideline that makes a distinction on what qualifies as an insult,” 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 classified as an insult.”
The legislation was approved by the upper house on Monday after earlier passing in the lower house, the most powerful of Japan’s two-chamber parliament.
At a press conference after parliament announced its decision, Kyoko told reporters she hoped the amendment would lead to more comprehensive legislation.
“I want people to know that cyberbullying is a crime,” she said, according to CNN.
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If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are experiencing a mental health crisis and live in New York City, you can call 1-888-NYC-WELL for free and confidential crisis counseling.
If you live outside the five boroughs, you can dial the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.