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Events of 2023

Kauan Okamoto, a former teen idol who accused businessman Johnny Kitagawa of sexual abuse, at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, September 8, 2023.

© 2023 Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Japan is a liberal democracy with an active civil society.

The Diet, Japan’s parliament, passed a bill that amends immigration law to allow the government to deport asylum seekers under certain conditions. Child sexual exploitation also received renewed scrutiny after the BBC reported in March on Japanese pop mogul Johnny Kitagawa’s history of child sexual abuse, prompting several hundred survivors to come forward.

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.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Japan’s asylum and refugee determination system remains strongly oriented against granting refugee status. In 2022, the Justice Ministry received 3,772 applications for refugee status but recognized only 202 people as refugees, many of whom were Afghan staff of the Japanese embassy in Kabul and their family members. Japan also categorized 1,760 people, of whom 1,682 were from Myanmar, as needing humanitarian considerations, allowing them to stay in Japan.

In June, the Diet passed a bill to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. The new law allows Japan to deport asylum seekers who apply for refugee status more than twice.

Migrant Workers

The government continued the foreign technical intern training program, which binds workers to their sponsoring employers without the option of changing them, to recruit more foreign workers, many from Southeast Asia. The program has drawn criticism for human rights violations, including payment of sub-minimum wages, illegal overtime, forced return of whistleblowers to their home countries, and dangerous or unhygienic working conditions. In May, a panel of experts mandated by the government to evaluate the program recommended Japan abolish it.

Death Penalty

There had been no executions in Japan in 2023 at time of writing. As of December 2022, 107 people were on death row. Concerns have long been raised about death row inmates, including their inadequate access to legal counsel and that they are notified of their execution only on the day it takes place.

In late October, a retrial for Iwao Hakamada, an 87-year-old former professional boxer arrested in 1966 and sentenced to death for the murder of a family of four, began after decades of retrial request processes. This is the fifth time a death penalty case will be retried in Japan. In earlier cases, the defendants were all acquitted.

Criminal Justice System

A Human Rights Watch report in May found that Japan’s system of “hostage justice” is rife with human rights abuses, including coercing suspects to confess through repeated arrests and denial of bail and questioning them without a lawyer.

In the same month, the Diet revised the Criminal Procedure Code to introduce some alternative measures to pretrial detention, including the use of GPS devices to track suspects who are released on bail. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations called on Japan to address its abusive bail practice, including by using such alternative measures.

Disability Rights

Japan’s psychiatric care sector uses arbitrary detention, abusive physical restraints, and forced treatment in violation of basic rights and in need of major reform. Local activists have raised concerns about the increasing number of people with psychosocial disabilities who are detained in psychiatric facilities against their will. The current psychiatric system incentivizes involuntary hospitalization.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Women’s rights activists in Japan achieved several milestones in their campaign for women’s rights.

In April, Japan approved medical abortion, which the World Health Organization has approved of as a safe method to terminate a pregnancy. For years, only procedural abortions were available in Japan. In general, however, spousal authorization remains a requirement.

In June, the Diet revised the penal code’s definition of rape to include “nonconsensual sexual intercourse” laid out in eight scenarios and removed the requirement of “violence or intimidation.” The statute of limitations for reporting rape was also increased from 10 to 15 years and the age of consent raised from 13 to 16 years, without criminalizing consensual sexual behavior by adolescents close in age, in addition to several other revisions.

Corporal Punishment Against Children

In December 2022, after decades of criticism by children’s rights groups, the Diet scrapped article 822 of the Civil Code, which authorized a person with parental authority to “discipline” a child, and introduced a new article that prohibits corporal punishment.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

In June, after years of campaigning by LGBT and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, the Diet passed its first law on sexual orientation and gender identity. The law seeks to “promote understanding” for the respect of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity and to avoid “unfair discrimination.” While it is a good start, the law falls short of comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation.

In July, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that the trade ministry’s ban against a transgender woman employee who had not undergone surgery from using the women’s bathroom was illegal.

Following years of litigation and advocacy, including by Human Rights Watch, in October, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the country’s law mandating sterilization surgery for transgender people as a requirement for legal gender recognition.

Enforced Disappearances by North Korea

In a landmark ruling in October, a Tokyo High Court found the North Korean government liable for human rights violations against Koreans and Japanese citizens it had enticed to relocate to North Korea through its “Paradise on Earth” campaign. Under the campaign, approximately 93,000 ethnic Koreans (Zainichi) and Japanese migrated to North Korea between 1959 and 1984 with the false promise of a better life. The ruling overturned the Tokyo district court’s decision that denied the plaintiffs’ demand because of a lack of jurisdiction and the statute of limitations.

Climate Change and Policy Impacts

Japan is among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases responsible for the climate crisis. In February, Japan adopted their new decarbonization strategy, the Green Transformation (GX) Basic Policy. Critics of the plan underscore its focus on energy security, economic growth, and the use of “clean coal technologies” at the expense of meaningful and ambitious emissions reductions.

Japan hosted the G7 Summit in May. The summit communiqué represents a significant increase in the G7’s ambition for phasing out unabated fossil fuels. However, Japan itself remains the only G7 country planning to build new coal-fired power plants.

In 2023, Japan again experienced its hottest summer on record with serious health impacts on older people and pregnant people.

Foreign Policy

The Japanese government 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.” However, Japan’s diplomatic response to rights abuses often contradicted or failed to fulfill its commitment, partly as it downplays concerns for human rights to compete against China for political and economic influence.

In December 2022, in a rare move, Japan’s House of Councilors approved a resolution, nearly identical to one passed by the House of Representatives in early 2022, highlighting human rights abuses in different areas, including Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, without naming the Chinese government.

In January, Human Rights Watch found that Japan’s Yokogawa Bridge Corp. apparently transferred about US$2 million to a conglomerate owned by the Myanmar military for the Bago River Bridge Construction Project, with US government approval. In April, Japan said the Myanmar military had confirmed that it had misused two Japan-funded civilian vessels to transport soldiers and weapons in Rakhine State in September 2022.