TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has failed to bring child pornography under control, leaving children around the world at risk, UNICEF said on Tuesday as it launched a campaign to stamp out exploitation of minors.
Japan's government is inching towards a ban on the possession of obscene images of children, which would bring it into line with most other industrialised countries.
But the Japan branch of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) urged Tokyo to beef up its laws by banning child pornography in manga comics, animated films and computer games as well as individual possession.
"Japan, a major player in information technology, is left uncontrolled, meaning children both here and around the world are suffering sexual exploitation for the sake of child porn," UNICEF said in a statement.
A previous campaign prompted laws, enacted in 1999 and 2004, that banned child prostitution and the production and sale of obscene images of children under 18, but simple possession of such material remains legal.
"The media report child pornography cases almost daily," the statement continued. "Hundreds of cases have been brought to court, but they are the tip of the iceberg and figures are still rising."
A committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party set up to look into a possible ban on the possession of child pornography, as well as penalties, held its first meeting last week.
"It turned out that almost all the members were in favour of banning individual possession, so we are moving in that direction," Mayumi Moriyama, a former justice minister who heads the committee, told the news conference.
Critics, including Washington's ambassador to Tokyo, Thomas Schieffer, say Japan's failure to ban possession has hampered international investigations into child pornography rings.
Schieffer was set to visit Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama later on Tuesday to press him on the issue, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. Hatoyama has already said he is in favour of a ban.
"I am ashamed to say that our society takes the view that it is all right to possess child porn," lawyer and children's rights campaigner Keiji Goto told reporters, adding that obscene photographs were often used by paedophiles to persuade children that sexual exploitation is normal.
UNICEF also called on prosecutors and courts to apply current legislation more strictly, pointing out that photo books and DVDs featuring small children in bikinis are freely available in stores and over the Internet.
Japan and Russia are alone among G8 countries in not banning possession of child pornography.
Some members of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party oppose a ban because it might grant police too much power, domestic newspaper reports have said.
Reporting by Isabel Reynolds; Editing by John Chalmers