Each day brings news of a new human rights crisis. Even focusing only on our Asian neighbors, countless civilians are being killed in conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka; governments are crushing protest movements in Burma, Tibet and Uzbekistan; security forces and armed groups are abducting, torturing and killing people in Sri Lanka, North Korea, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines, while the military government is compelling people to vote in Burma with no respect for the rule of law. Japan's goal to make the 21st century "a century of human rights" seems wishful thinking.
And how is the Japanese government responding to these human rights crises all over Asia? The Japanese government's position has often been vague and slow when it does raise its voice about human rights concerns in other countries. Japan has rarely demonstrated leadership in the international community to speak up for those being oppressed by their own governments. Only in the case of North Korea has Japan certainly taken the lead in pressuring the North Korean government on abductions of Japanese nationals. But this has more to do with protecting Japanese nationals than protecting universal human rights. Proof lies in the fact that we hardly ever hear about Japan speaking out about ordinary North Koreans who face every day abuses of human rights
The Japanese media often nonchalantly reports on "Western governments" protesting human rights violations abroad. Broadcasters report on such acts as if protesting human rights violations were a duty reserved solely for the West, and not Asia. True, Japan is not alone in its relative reticence to speak about human rights violations in other countries; it is a common trait found in almost all Asian governments.
Being Japanese, we are quick to count ourselves among Western democratic nations as far as the economy is concerned. Yet why are we so indifferent and allow ourselves to lag behind in the area of human rights? It's not as if Japanese people do not possess a basic sense of social justice.
Respecting human rights is not only about asserting social justice for all, but it is also in Japan's national interest by promoting regional stability. For example, many foreign affairs experts say China and North Korea pose the biggest threat to Japan's security, because these countries do not share basic values with Japan and their governments lack stability, which in turn makes it difficult to predict their future stance towards Japan.
But what if China and North Korea were rights-respecting nations where the rule of law protected the interests of all individuals without fear of oppression and societies in which people had the freedom of expression to openly discuss their problems and seek solutions even on politically "sensitive" issues? China and North Korea would then become genuinely stable societies, and neighbors in which Japan could place greater trust.
Japan has the potential to be a leading Asian nation that advocates the protection of global human rights. Certainly that leadership comes with a responsibility to clean its own slate, too. The human rights record of the Japanese government will come under scrutiny. But that is an honor. It is more dishonorable to maintain relationships with other countries when neither party ever brings up their shared stake in human rights, or their roles in preventing human rights violations.
For a long time now, the Japanese government has been extremely cautious in taking stands on various human rights issues that arise throughout the world. As Japan recovered from its war-torn economy and reconstructed itself as a rising star of Asia, the Japanese government tended to prioritize its business interest than the welfare of individuals in partner countries. But Japan is now economically advanced and the Japanese people have grown to value not only economic well-being but the welfare of people - including those of foreign countries. Some are skeptical as to whether the Japanese government is eligible to speak out on the human rights record of its Asian neighbors because of Japan's atrocities during World War II. While the Japanese must sincerely acknowledge its past and take steps to address it, embarrassment over human rights abuses in the past cannot be a reason to ignore the victims of human rights abuses today.
Now is the time for Japan to revise its foreign policy and become a nation that advocates for human rights in a more public and vocal manner. As the biggest aid donor to many Asian countries and some African countries, Japan is in a unique position to do so. Its words carry weight with recipient countries. The Japanese government has the potential to exercise considerable leverage to relieve the suffering of many people in various countries. As Japanese nationals, we should urge our government to use that leverage and demand that it strives to become a champion of human rights.
Kanae Doi is Japan Consultant for Human Rights Watch.