Japan is a liberal democracy with an active civil society. In July, two days before an upper house election, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed during a campaign rally in Nara Prefecture. The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, was reportedly motivated by his family’s financial difficulties caused by the Unification Church, as well as problematic ties between Abe and the religious group. On July 10, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a majority of seats in Japan’s upper house election.
Japan has no laws prohibiting racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Japan does not have a national human rights institution.
Japan’s asylum and refugee determination system remains strongly oriented against granting refugee status. In 2021, the Justice Ministry received 2,413 applications for refugee status, but recognized only 74 people as refugees, and categorized 580 people, 498 from Myanmar, as needing humanitarian assistance, allowing them to stay in Japan. Applications for refugee status in 2021 decreased by 88 percent from 2017, when nearly 20,000 applications were filed.
Unusually, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Japan had accepted 2,035 people from Ukraine as “evacuees” as of October 19. In August 2022, the Justice Ministry announced it also granted refugee status to 133 people fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban took power in August 2021.
In December 2021, Japan executed three prisoners on death row. In July, Japan executed another prisoner, with 106 prisoners remaining on death row as of July 26. Concerns have long been raised about death-row inmates being notified of their execution only on the day it takes place and having inadequate access to legal counsel, among others.
The revised article 731 of the Civil Code went into effect in April, raising the minimum age that girls can get married from 16 to 18 with parental permission, effectively ending child marriage.
In a series of court rulings from early to late 2022, the Tokyo District Court ordered universities to compensate people who had sued the school for damages caused by discriminatory admission policies. The lawsuits began after several medical schools were found to be discriminating against women and repeat applicants in 2018. Japan has an Equal Employment Opportunity Law between men and women, but it only applies to the area of employment.
In June, Japan passed the Child Basic Act, the country’s first national law for the rights of the child, based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In June, Japan revised the Child Welfare Act. The revisions included a measure to address financial incentives for institutionalization of children without parental care, and introduction of mandatory judicial review for determining whether a child should be removed from their family, for which the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged Japan at the latest country reports review.
The Education Ministry failed to act following reports that the online learning products it had authorized for children’s education during the Covid-19 pandemic infringed on children’s rights. Nine out of the 10 products reviewed by Human Rights Watch surveilled or had the capacity to surveil children online. Seven of these products transmitted children’s personal data to advertising technology companies, enabling these companies to track and target children across the internet.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Despite a significant public campaign, the Diet did not pass non-discrimination legislation that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Japan’s national government does not recognize same-sex relationships, but municipal and prefecture-level authorities representing more than 60% of the country’s population including Tokyo have begun to issue “marriage” certificates, which have no legal effect, to same-sex couples. The government still requires sterilization surgeries before transgender people can be legally recognized according to their gender identity. In November 2021, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that a prohibition to have any underage children, (a discriminatory requirement in the “Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act” for a transgender person to be legally recognized), is constitutional.
Japan’s “hostage” justice system holds criminal suspects for long periods in harsh conditions to coerce confessions. In May 2022, the Justice Ministry started to review the implementation of the 2016 Criminal Procedure Code revisions, which introduced mandatory video and audio recording of interrogations in some criminal cases.
In June, Japan amended its penal code, replacing “imprisonment with labor” and “imprisonment” with “imprisonment … which allows the enforcement of necessary work and guidance.” Additionally, Japan lacks alternative measures to imprisonment even for people who committed non-violent crimes and use drugs, have mental health conditions, are pregnant, or have children.
Climate Change and Policy Impacts
Japan is among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases responsible for the climate crisis. In October 2021, Japan updated its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, aiming to cut emissions to net zero by 2050 and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 46 percent by 2030, earning it an “almost sufficient” rating for its “Domestic Target” from the Climate Action Tracker.
In October 2021, Japan adopted a new Basic Energy Plan that stated Japan would aim to reduce coal to 19 percent of energy use by 2030, just a 13 percent reduction from current levels, and increase renewable energy to between 36 and 38 percent. In May, Japan joined fellow members of the G7 in committing to end international financing in fossil fuels by the end of 2022, although the commitment included a significant loophole that allows for investments in the gas sector.
On July 28, Japan voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution recognizing a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. Japan abstained in October 2021 when the resolution was passed at the UN Human Rights Council.
In the summer, Japan experienced its most severe heat wave on record, and Tokyo broke a record for the number of days of severe heat in a year by mid-summer.
Business and Human Rights
In September, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry released “Guidelines on Respect for Human Rights in Responsible Supply Chains,” the first set of guidelines in Japan outlining human rights due diligence responsibilities for Japanese companies. While this could be a much-needed tool, these non-binding guidelines should be significantly strengthened and do not substitute for binding legislation. Japan should adopt robust legislation to regulate how companies respect human rights and environmental standards in their own operations and global value chains.
Japan officially states that “the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate interest of the international community,” and “grave violations of human rights need to be addressed in cooperation with the international community.”
In September, Japan announced it will suspend accepting new officers and cadets from the Myanmar military for training, citing the Myanmar junta’s execution of four pro-democracy activists as a major factor in its decision. After the February 1, 2021 military coup, Japan accepted eight military personnel for training. Prior to Japan’s announcement, research by Human Rights Watch has previously located Japan-trained officers at Myanmar military bases where units have been implicated in serious abuses.
In response to the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japan refrained from sending ministers to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Just days before the opening ceremony, Japanese lawmakers passed a Diet resolution highlighting human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong. Specifically, the February 1 resolution calls for the “monitoring of serious human rights situations in cooperation with the international community,” and “implementation of comprehensive relief measures.”
Japan has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental commitment aiming to strengthen the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, schools, and universities during war.