A Obstacles to Access 21 25
B Limits on Content 27 35
C Violations of User Rights 27 40
Last Year's Score & Status
77 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Key Developments, June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • The government asked ISPs to block three manga piracy sites in April 2018 and indicated that it will introduce new legislation to expand the scope of website blocking (see Blocking and Filtering).
  • Five people were arrested for copyright related offenses, including two who were sentenced to prison (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
  • In June 2017, a new conspiracy law was passed that may allow police to seek wiretap warrants to investigate more crimes with alleged links to terrorism (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).
  • The e-commerce company Rakuten was granted wireless spectrum to launch its own mobile network in late 2017 (see ICT Market).

header2 Introduction

Internet freedom declined in Japan due to government requests to block manga piracy sites and increased arrests and prosecutions for copyright related offenses.

There are few obstacles to access in Japan, and the internet penetration rate is over 90 percent. Japan’s constitution protects all forms of speech and prohibits censorship, although some legislation disproportionately penalizes specific online activities. Information about the communications surveillance equipment available to Japanese intelligence agencies was revealed in 2017. It is not clear if the equipment could be used on domestic surveillance targets under Japan’s wiretap framework. But the news came during a time that also saw clear indications of law enforcement powers expanding on security grounds. The Supreme Court failed to challenge the police practice of monitoring anyone in the Muslim community for possible links to terrorism. Meanwhile, in June 2017, a conspiracy law was passed that may allow police to seek wiretap warrants to investigate more crimes with supposed links to terrorism.

The conspiracy law is the latest step to boost national security under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Lawmakers passed state secrets legislation in 2013, which criminalized both leaking and publishing broadly defined national secrets regardless of intent or content. In a review of Japan’s human rights practices in July 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said the legislation laid out “a vague and broad definition of the matters that can be classified as secret” and “high criminal penalties that could generate a chilling effect on the activities of journalists and human rights defenders.”1 In June 2017, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression also noted “significant worrying signals” about Japan’s record on freedom of expression. Following this statement, five people were arrested for copyright related offenses.

A Obstacles to Access

In general, Japanese internet users experience few obstacles to access. There are high rates of internet penetration, and smartphone use is increasing. Wi-Fi and mobile options are expanding in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Availability and Ease of Access

Internet and mobile penetration increased slightly during the coverage period, while internet speeds also continued to improve.

Mobile penetration figures include access via personal handy-phone (PHS) handsets, an affordable cell phone alternative with limited range that helped popularize mobile internet before the introduction of smartphones. But smartphones have since transformed the experience of getting online. 59 percent of internet users accessed the internet using a computer in 2016, according to the latest available government figures, down from 79 percent in 2011;1 accessing the internet via a smartphone dramatically increased over the same period, and smartphones were the primary means of internet access for 58 percent of users at the end of 2016.2 Tablets nudged out mobile phones and PHS handsets in the latest data, with tablet internet usage at 24 percent compared to 13 percent for feature phones or PHS.3

Increasing smartphone use has made the mobile market more competitive and has resulted in improved pricing options. Providers have subsidized second and third devices and made data and family plans cheaper, and at least one offers discounts to customers with more than five years of continuous service.

The government has invested heavily in Wi-Fi networks in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.4 Some companies offer free Wi-Fi, including the private Wire and Wireless (Wi2) company, part of the KDDI group, which offers free internet access in some restaurants, coffee shops, and train stations; registration requires an email address.5 Wi-Fi access has been tied to mobile subscriptions in the past, a barrier for users without contracts.6

The cost of service can otherwise be quite high, though plans are becoming more affordable. According to government statistics, the average cost of internet access for two-or-more-person households throughout Japan was JPY 3,411 (US$30) in 2016, compared to JPY 2,168 (US$20) in 2014.7 But government statistics show major disparities between the average costs for households in regional areas, with connectivity costs in major cities being the most expensive in 2016, at JPY 3,780 per month (US$35), while small cities, towns, and villages being JPY 2,468 per month (US$23).8 Connectivity for households in the heavily populated Kinki (Osaka-Kyoto) and Kanto (Tokyo area) regions was nearly JPY 1,400 (US$13) more per month than the least expensive Tohoku (northeast) region.9 Many providers bundle digital media subscriptions, including cable television, Voice over IP (VoIP), and email addresses, pushing costs higher.

Access is well distributed across the population, though it is less common among the elderly.10 Mobile phone operators are expanding their market for handsets designed for children and the elderly, with easy-to-use, large-button phones.

Restrictions on Connectivity

Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure is advanced, and there have been no reports of the government deliberately disconnecting telecommunications service. Providers continue to develop infrastructure, investing in Wi-Fi to alleviate mobile network congestion and testing 5G service.11

Connectivity is occasionally restricted accidentally or due to network congestion and server outages. Subscribers with NTT and KDDI reported an apparent outage in August 2017 that was caused by human or technical error. It was resolved after 23 minutes.12 Infrastructure was also severely damaged in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s east coast, triggering a nuclear plant accident. Many people lost service for days or weeks; mobile phone usage dropped by almost half in the affected areas.13

There is full competition in the ownership of gateways to the international internet.14 Historically, Japan’s internet connections were forged through cooperation among government agencies (including then government-owned NTT), universities, and national research institutions.15

ICT Market

Japan has three major mobile operators—au (KDDI), NTT’s Docomo, and Softbank. All use the CDMA wireless network or a variant. The NTT group remains dominant in practice, though hundreds of providers offer services including FTTH, DSL, and fixed or broadband wireless access (FWA or BWA).16 A new player, the e-commerce company Rakuten, has entered the mobile market and seeks to become the fourth major carrier, after it was granted wireless spectrum to launch its own network in late 2017.17 No major foreign operators have successfully penetrated the telecommunications market independently.

NTT, formerly a state monopoly, was privatized in 1985 and reorganized in 1999 under a law promoting functional separation between the company’s mobile, fixed-line, and internet services.18 Asymmetric regulation, which creates stricter rules for carriers with a higher market share, helped diversify the industry.19

According to NTT Docomo figures from late 2017, the company holds 45.6 percent (75.7 million subscribers) of the Japanese market, followed by au (KDDI) at 30.5 percent (50.6 million subscribers) and SoftBank (23.8 percent or 39.5 million subscribers) as at the end of 2017.20

Users may switch mobile providers more easily since 2014, when the government required cell phone carriers to unlock SIM cards in mobile phones if requested by users, facilitating the use of third-party prepaid SIM cards.21 In October 2014, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) issued new guidelines concerning SIM card unlocking.22 Though the guidelines were subject to criticism,23 they helped address concerns that the cost of switching providers favored the dominant players and created a barrier for new entrants to the market. Besides benefitting Japanese consumers,24 the change is expected to permit better access to the influx of tourists to Japan expected during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.25

Regulatory Bodies

Both the telecommunications and broadcast sectors are regulated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), rather than an independent commission. Some self-regulatory bodies also manage content and other issues.

Observers believe that the industry has generally improved since the 2001 establishment of the MIC, which was comprised of two former ministries—the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications—and the central government’s Management and Coordination Agency. This “super ministry” regulates the telecommunications, internet, and broadcast sectors.26

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported by the relevant companies in these three sectors perform a self-regulatory function. These include television’s Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization, the Content Evaluation and Monitoring Association for mobile platforms, and the Internet Content Safety Association, which manages blocking of child sexual abuse images online.27 Observers have accused ministry officials of trying to restrict or influence content under the broadcast law.28

B Limits on Content

In a controversial move in 2018, the government asked ISPs to block manga piracy sites and indicated that it will introduce new legislation to expand the scope of website blocking. Content removal concerns relating to the so-called “right to be forgotten” continued. Meanwhile, Japanese citizens engaged in online campaigning ahead of the 2017 general election, which was only the fourth national-level election to allow the use of websites and social networking services for political campaigns.

Blocking and Filtering

Authorities do not routinely directly censor online content in Japan, although in a controversial move during the reporting period, the government instructed ISPs to block at least three websites.

In April 2018, the government asked ISPs to block manga piracy sites, prompting a public debate that highlighted tensions between the protection of intellectual property on one hand and users’ rights to private communications and the constitutional ban on censorship on the other.1 Three of the main sites targeted were Mangamura, AniTube!, and MioMio.2 In May 2018, Nikkei xTECH revealed that in April the general councilor of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications demanded that Japan’s three major communications companies—NTT, KDDI, and Softbank—block a pirate site hosting manga. However, for ISPs to block particular websites, they must monitor their customers' online activity to determine if they are accessing the pirate sites, which could violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to “secrecy of communication.”3 Observers also expressed concern that the government’s demand for the block conflicted with the Telecommunications Business Act and constitutional ban on censorship.4 Shortly after announcing it would comply with the government’s request, a customer sued NTT on grounds that the blocking violated privacy and secrecy guarantees.5 The government has since indicated that it will introduce new legislation in 2019 to expand its power to block websites, which currently may only legally be instituted against sites found to host child sexual abuse images.6

ISPs voluntarily filter child sexual abuse images, and many offer parents the option to filter certain content to protect young internet users.7 Depictions of genitalia are pixelated to obscure them for internet users based on a common—though poorly-articulated—interpretation of Article 175 of the penal code, which governs obscenity.8 Otherwise, individuals or police instruct ISPs to administratively delete contested or illegal content (see Content Removal).

The threat of official content restrictions looms periodically during public debates about child safety, though carriers and content producers have successfully resisted intrusive regulation. In 2007, the MIC ordered mobile operators to install filtering software enabling parents to control content seen by their children. A coalition of groups, including the Japan Internet Providers Association and the user rights organization Movement of Internet Active Users, lobbied against the mandate, and mobile users can now select voluntary filters.9 Complaints to the official Consumer Affairs Agency about quasi-gambling functions in games played by children on mobile devices shot up in 2011, along with calls for government regulation.10 Instead, in 2012, game developers Gree and DeNA Mobage voluntarily adopted caps on purchases of virtual items by minors.11 Games integrated with social networks have also been criticized for their potential for abuse by those preying on children.

Content Removal

Courts have continued to consider lawsuits from individuals requesting that search engines delink inaccurate or irrelevant material about them from public results, but the Supreme Court laid down important guidance setting limits on “right to be forgotten” removals.

“Right to be forgotten” cases increased around the same time as a 2014 decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which excluded public figures from the ruling to prevent abuse, but placed the onus of assessing whether requests merit that exception on the companies that operate search engines. Until early 2017, there was no similar legal guidance in Japan, and cases against search engine companies were dealt with by the courts at various levels on an individual basis.

In early 2017, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google and established criteria for delisting search results, in a reversal of previous lower courts orders to remove search results.12 In this case, a man requested Google remove search results documenting a crime he committed over five years ago.13 The Court reasoned that “removal of information can be demanded only when privacy protection concerns clearly outweigh the public’s interest in the disclosure of information online.”14 The court indicated that points such as the content of the search results, the scope of disclosure, social status of the persons involved, the “social situation,” and the “necessity of disclosing facts” were critical in deciding whether search engine results should be removed.15

Courts have also ruled that content be removed in defamation cases. In a 2015 lawsuit, the Tokyo High Court ordered Yahoo Japan to delete 11 results that linked a man’s name to criminal behavior. The man had originally argued that he was defamed by false information.16

Service providers protect themselves from civil liability by adhering to voluntary guidelines governing takedown requests.17 The 2001 Provider Liability Limitation Act directed ISPs to establish a self-regulatory framework to govern takedown requests involving illegal or objectionable content, defamation, privacy violations, and copyright infringement.18 In 2002, industry associations produced guidelines designed to protect ISPs from legal liability within the jurisdiction of the Japanese courts. Under the guidelines, anyone can report material that infringes directly on their personal rights to the service provider, either to have it removed or to find out who posted it. No third party can do so. The provider notifies the individual who posted the content, and either fulfils the request with their permission or removes the content without the authors’ approval if they fail to respond. If the poster refuses permission, the service provider is authorized to assess the complaint, and act upon it if they believe it is legitimate. In this scenario, an ISP could give the complainant information to identify the poster—such as their name or IP address—without that person’s consent, raising privacy concerns.

In recent years, content removals have focused on hate speech and illegal content, including child sexual abuse images and “revenge porn,” explicit images shared without consent of the subject. The Tokyo-based Safer Internet Association reported it had been asked to deal with over 2,000 cases of revenge porn between September 2014 and November 2016, and had succeeded in getting 80 to 90 percent deleted.19 A law to address revenge porn passed in November 2014 (see Legal Environment). Under the law, providers must comply with takedown requests within two days.20

Inflammatory, nationalist speech targeting Japanese residents of Korean origin and other minority groups is also subject to removal. In February 2017, the Japanese video website Niconico Dōga took down two videos posted from an IP address within the city of Osaka after municipal officials flagged them for violating a local ordinance regulating hate speech.21 In 2016, after Makoto Sakurai, a personality known for anti-Korean rhetoric, opened a personal channel on the online television station AbemaTV, there was rush of criticism online and the channel was deleted.22

The Internet Hotline Center, operated through the Safer Internet Association as part of a contract with the National Police Agency (NPA), cooperates with ISPs to solicit reports of illegal or harmful content from the public.23 The center’s website features online forms for reporting objectionable internet-related content such as that featuring obscene images, child sexual abuse images, illegal drugs, prostitution, and other harmful content, as well as a referencing system allowing users to look up the status of submitted reports. The center received a record high of 597,570 reports in 2017, more than double than the previous year. However, their analysis showed that rates of both illegal and harmful content have been decreasing since 2015.24 From April 2016, the Internet Hotline Center also provides reports to “Safe-line,” a website provided by the Safer Internet Association (SIA).25 Once the SIA receives a report, it will either file a police report and inform the Internet Hotline Center or it will make a request for removal to the domestic or overseas provider.26

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

Commentators have noted “alarming signs of deteriorating media freedoms in Japan,” although not explicitly affecting the internet.27 In a June 2017 report, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression noted that there were “significant worrying signals” about Japan’s record on freedom of expression and self-censorship among journalists on issues such as the Fukushima nuclear reaction disaster.28

In mid-2016, the government passed a law outlining measures authorities could take to educate the public about hate speech while also combatting it against people of overseas origin and their descendants.29 Both officials and civic groups have sought to address the nationalistic and sometimes violent discourse spread online by Japanese trolls, or netouyo, since at least 2013, particularly targeting South Koreans and Chinese communities amid territorial disputes between Japan and their respective governments.30 Japanese political parties drafting the legislation struggled to balance restrictions on racial and ethnic slurs with freedom of expression guarantees in the Constitution,31 and the law did not ban or penalize hate speech, though some critics argued it would be ineffective as a result.32 Several municipalities asked for a clearer definition of hate speech under the law in 2017.33

Some city governments have also proposed local ordinances on hate speech such as one passed by Osaka in January 2016. The ordinance authorized the public disclosure of groups that disseminate hate speech, defined as “communication which defames and aims to exclude a particular group based on race or ethnicity,” including through “online transmission,” according to news reports.34 At least two videos were removed at the municipality’s request in March 2017, and the mayor also attempted to compel the hosting platform to reveal the poster’s legal name, leading to privacy concerns (see Content Removal and Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).35

Progovernment commentators online are prevalent across Japan. For example, the Jiminto (Liberal Democratic Party) Net Supporters Club (J-NSC), organized in 2010 by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had about 19,000 members by October 2017. The group essentially serves as an online public relations effort for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). While J-NSC is affiliated with the LDP, organizational rules make clear that members are responsible for their own social media posts. Such posts have attacked those criticizing the regime and have initiated at times negative campaigns against opposition lawmakers.36

Political bots have also permeated across the cyber sphere. Analysis of about half a million sample tweets posted before and after Japan's 2014 general election revealed that most posts were near-duplicates or retweets of those posted by bots, including many that disseminated nationalist or progovernment messages.37

There are some known cases of the government or powerful groups proactively manipulating online news or other content. In one significant instance, government officials and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) withheld data about pollution after a nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture was severely damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The MIC requested that four industry associations monitor false or unsubstantiated content circulating about the disaster online. Some observers said this was a measure to control public discourse, though deletions were not widespread. Service providers removed content, which included images of corpses, in at least 13 cases,38 though the National Police Agency reported 41 items for review.39 Others found an outlet to report on the aftermath of the disaster online.40 Media scrutiny of reportage involving the 2011 triple disaster have continued. In June 2016, articles appeared in major Japanese news outlets describing government officials pressuring TEPCO not to use the term “meltdown” at a news conference shortly after the events at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear plant.41

YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and international blog-hosting services are freely available, as are popular local platforms like Niconico Dōga, a video-sharing site, and LINE, a chat application that was launched in Japan in 2011. Blogs have a significant impact on public opinion, and several independent journalists are becoming influential through personal or commercial websites and social media accounts. However, most online media remain small and community-based.42

The mainstream media’s tendency toward compliance and restraint may have hampered the development of the more combative online news cultures flourishing elsewhere in Asia.43 For example, there is some self-censorship concerning human rights problems, in some cases linked to instances of apparent political pressure.44

European Union, October 16, 2017, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/21513/st12816en17-ar.pdf. Kisha clubs—formal organizations only open to traditional media companies—and an advertising market that favors established players may be preventing digital media from gaining a foothold in the market. Kisha clubs provide essential access to officials in Japan, but have been accused of denying young journalists and new media outlets access to officials as well as to government-owned or -restricted locations, such as areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. 45 In 2017, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression continued to criticize the kisha club system.46 Some online news outlets struggle to sustain themselves financially.

Japanese citizens exercise some self-censorship online, often on historical and social issues. The society at large prefers “harmony,” and people avoid criticizing the role of Japan’s Emperor, especially when connected with historic events like World War II. Individuals and public figures who break this code risk censure and even attacks from right-wing fanatics, who notoriously tried to assassinate the Nagasaki mayor on these grounds in the 1990s. Though exceptional, incidents like this still exert a chilling effect on Japanese expression.

Digital Activism

Online campaigning continued ahead of the October 2017 general election, which was only the fourth national-level election since legislation passed in 2013 allowed the use of websites and social networking services for political campaigns (see Legal Environment).47 The election was the second national poll since Japan’s voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 in mid-June 2016. Short videos promoting voting among young people were created by the Tokyo Metropolitan election management board and popularized on Twitter. Seventeen prefecture-based election management boards utilized Twitter to encourage voting, and 11 prefecture-based election management boards had Facebook accounts.

Digital activism in Japan has been highly effective both at the local and national level. Online grassroots movements emerged in the mid-1980s, when local community networks organized to protest deforestation in Zushi, Kanagawa prefecture.48 In the 1980s, Renkon NeT promoted civic monitoring of radiation levels nation-wide.49 In 1993, the non-profit internet service provider Japan Computer Access for Empowerment (JCAFE), first named JCA, was set up for social movements and NGOs. It ran workshops and demonstrations and offered server space, site rental, email hosting, and bulletin boards. It also supported civic groups' participation in international meetings, especially the Beijing Women's Conference and the Kyoto Protocol summit.50 Since then, many forms of digital activism have taken on social issues, such as one tracking racist graffiti in Tokyo.51

More initiatives sprang up in the “post-3.11” era (3.11 connotes the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant accident). In the immediate aftermath of the triple disaster, maps sharing public information about disaster relief,52 and Google’s “Person Finder” web application were examples of the effective use of the internet to facilitate recovery.53 Digital activists further spurred large demonstrations and protests against nuclear energy, many of which were organized through the internet and social media. Echoes of that disaster could still be heard in online campaigns during the coverage period. In April 2017, a cabinet minister was forced to resign after widespread criticism of his remarks about Tohoku, a rural area still recovering from 3.11. The minister said an earthquake in Tohoku was preferable to one in a more populous urban environment, sparking an informal online movement to rebut his viewpoint.54

C Violations of User Rights

While the government normally refrains from prosecuting online activity, a few internet users were arrested for copyright related offenses. A new conspiracy law was approved that may allow police to seek warrants for wiretaps in a wider range of circumstances. Information revealed in the previous reporting period showed that Japanese intelligence agencies were cooperating with the US National Security Agency to conduct mass surveillance in the region, although it is unclear if these resources have been deployed for domestic surveillance.

Legal Environment

Article 21 of Japan’s constitution prohibits censorship and protects freedom of “speech, press, and all other forms of expression,” as well as the “secrecy of any means of communication.”1 In general, these rights are upheld in practice, though some social and legal constraints exist. Several laws have negative implications for free speech or privacy, including a conspiracy law passed in June 2017 (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

The Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets came into force in December 2014, despite objections from the opposition, civil society, and protesters. The law gives a range of officials the discretion to indefinitely restrict public information pertaining to national security.2 Overseen by government officials rather than an independent body, it offers no protection for whistleblowers who reveal wrongdoing.3 Under the law, intentional leaks are punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment while unintentional leaks by up to two years. In addition, individuals who knowingly receive secrets from an administrative organ risk up to five years in prison if the disclosures are found to be intentional, and one year for disclosures made through negligence.4 Subsequent guidelines outlined four main fields of state secrets—defense, diplomacy, anti-espionage, and antiterrorism measures—which are further divided into 55 categories.5 News reports said the government was preparing to destroy classified documents for the first time under the law in April 2017.6

Other laws include potentially disproportionate penalties for online activity, including a 2012 legal revision targeting copyright violators that includes any internet user downloading content they know has been illegally copied, as opposed to just those engaged in piracy for commercial gain.7 While both uploading and downloading pirated material was already illegal under the copyright law, with uploaders subject to 10 years of imprisonment or fines up to JPY 10 million (US$91,000), the version in effect since 2012 added two years in jail or fines up to JPY 2 million (US$18,200) for downloading a single pirated file.8 The Japanese Bar Association in response said that downloading, as an essentially insignificant personal act, should be regulated by civil instead of criminal laws.9

A 2013 revision of the Public Offices Election Act undid long-standing restrictions on the use of the internet for election campaigns. Limits remain on paid online advertising and campaign emails, which can only be sent directly by a party or candidate—not a supporter—in a measure designed to prevent fraud.10 While these provisions were contested and revisions are still planned,11 politicians violating these restrictions face a potential JPY 300,000 (US$2,730) fine or one year in prison; imprisonment would strip them of their right to vote or the opportunity to run for office. Voters found improperly soliciting support for a candidate via email could be fined JPY 500,000 (US$4,550) or jailed for two years.12

Article 175 of the Japanese penal code bans the sale or distribution of broader categories of “obscene” material, and while it dates from over 100 years ago, it is considered to apply online.13 However, it does not define what constitutes obscenity, leading to concerns that it could be invoked against artistic expression or used to curtail LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights.14

Other laws regulate online activity but they are not known to have resulted in abuse or disproportionate penalties. Heightened awareness of revenge porn and online harassment culminated in the ruling LDP passing a bill criminalizing revenge porn in November 2014. The law stipulates that “offenders who distribute such images could face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to JPY 500,000 (US$4,550), with third-party distribution also leading to up to one year in prison or a fine of JPY 300,000 (US$2,730). Takedown requests under the law are processed quickly (see Content Removal).15 Japan’s antistalking law, originally enacted in 2000, was revised in 2013 to address email harassment, and further revised in December 2016 to penalize repeated messages using social network services and blog posts.16 In early 2017, the Tokyo Metropolitan government announced plans to draft guidelines to regulate “sexting” by young people.17 In December 2017, Tokyo’s metropolitan government adopted a revised ordinance making it illegal to ask for naked images from anyone under 18, once the minor has already rejected such solicitation.18

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

No citizens faced politically motivated arrest or prosecution for digital activity during the coverage period of this report, although more internet users were arrested and sentenced for copyright violations.

Arrests are periodically reported under the copyright law, which carries possible prison terms for both uploading and downloading content without the permission of the copyright owner (see Legal Environment). In one example from the reporting period, five people were arrested for uploading pages of popular manga such as "One Piece" onto "spoiler" sites before their publication date.19 In December 2017, two of the five people were each sentenced to 18 months in prison, a three-year suspension, and a JPY 500,000 fine for copyright related offenses.20

Reported cases rarely appear to involve commercial piracy, and some internet users may be exposed to heavier penalties based on their use of peer-to-peer file-sharing software, which simultaneously downloads and uploads files even if users have accessed them for personal use and are not actively trying to disseminate them.21 It is unclear how many of those arrested are ultimately sentenced, though nine were referred to prosecutors in March 2017.22

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Japan’s Supreme Court protects privacy through its interpretation of Article 13 of the Constitution, which provides for the right to life and liberty.23 “Secrecy of communication” is also protected under telecommunications laws.24 However, recent developments in Japan have raised concerns about increased surveillance, including the approval of a conspiracy law that may allow police to seek wiretap warrants in a wider range of circumstances. The lack of transparency surrounding surveillance capabilities has been cause for concern, notably since 2017, when leaked documents revealed in 2013 that US intelligence agents supplied Japanese counterparts with advanced mass surveillance equipment.

The conspiracy law passed in June 2017 creates the possibility of more government surveillance. It criminalizes “planning” to commit a series of newly-classified “serious crimes” that could supposedly fund terrorism, including copyright violations, potentially making more suspects subject to wiretaps. The UN special rapporteur for privacy noted ahead of the law’s passage that “in order to establish the existence and the extent of such ‘a planning’ and ‘preparatory actions,’ it is logical to assume that those charged would have had to be subjected to a considerable level of surveillance beforehand.”25

Under a wiretap law enacted in 2000, law enforcement agents may seek a court order to conduct electronic surveillance in criminal investigations involving drugs, firearms, human trafficking, or organized murders, in an exception to articles of other laws that explicitly forbid wiretapping.26 In 2016, the law was expanded to include fraud, theft, and child sexual abuse images.27 The law obliges agents to notify targets of wiretaps after investigations are concluded and inform the Diet about the number they implement annually. Critics say the law does not prevent the systematic storage of intercepted communications or protect innocent parties.28 In February 2018, the Justice Ministry announced that there were 10,957 mobile phones tapped during 2017, leading to 61 arrests.29

The wiretap law was controversial when it passed, in part due to the authorities’ periodic abuse of surveillance powers.30 Security agents and the military were accused of conducting illegal surveillance in cases involving national security in 2003 and 2004.31 In June 2016, Japan’s Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to the practice of police profiling of Muslim people and monitoring places of worship and other venues used by members of the Muslim community. The original case was brought after a 2010 leak of police documents revealed that Muslims were subject to widespread monitoring for possible terrorist activity. It was not clear how much of the activity involved digital, as opposed to physical surveillance.32 The 2014 state secrets law, which covers national security issues, may make related surveillance abuses harder to document (see Legal Environment).

Some Japanese agencies may have equipment enabling blanket surveillance of citizens, though it is not known how they have been used. In April 2017, the Intercept published an analysis of leaked documents that implicated Japanese police and intelligence agencies in regional surveillance operations by the US National Security Agency (NSA). “The NSA had provided the Japanese Directorate for [Japan’s ground-based signals intelligence stations] SIGINT with an installation of XKEYSCORE, a mass surveillance system the NSA describes as its ‘widest reaching’ for sweeping up data from computer networks, monitoring ‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,’” according to the report.

Some companies report on data requests they receive from Japanese agencies. LINE, a messaging app with servers based in Japan, reported that 86 percent of global law enforcement requests for user data it received between January and June 2018 came from Japanese law enforcement. The company said it complies with requests that are based on a warrant, an investigation-related inquiry, or an emergency order, under the Japanese penal code and criminal procedure code.33 Google reported 251 requests for user data between January and June 2018, and produced some data in 86 percent of cases. Facebook reported six government requests involving eight accounts between July and December 2017 and said it produced data in 67 percent of cases; it also agreed to preserve data pending official requests in 12 cases.34

Privacy issues were briefly in the spotlight in June 2017 when the video site Niconico Dōga refused to reveal a video blogger’s identity to Osaka city officials. The officials sought to expose the user for publishing videos about Korean residents under a local ordinance on hate speech (see Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation).35

A law to protect personal information dating from 2003 protects individuals’ data collected electronically by private and public sector organizations, where the data involves more than 5,000 records.36 Law enforcement requests for this data should be supported by a warrant.37 Amendments passed by the Diet in September 2015 defined “personal information” in more specific terms as “biometric information” and “numeric data that is capable of identifying a specific individual.”38 Anonymization provisions allow for personal data to be transferred to a third party without the consent of the subject if specific requirements are met.39 Criminal sanctions for misusing personal data and restrictions on the transfer of personal data to overseas jurisdictions lacking equivalent data protection frameworks were also strengthened.40 Finally, the amendments established the Personal Information Protection Commission as an “independent authority under the Cabinet Office,” replacing the Consumer Affairs Agency.41

Changes to the legal frameworks surrounding privacy and surveillance are often considered in the context of the ongoing digitization of citizens’ personal records. The “My Number” law, which was passed in the Diet in May 2013, introduced a unique 12-digit number for all long-term residents to access unified social welfare services, as well as for taxation purposes; citizens will be required to link their bank records to the numbers by 2021.42 Photo ID cards with “My Number” information contain electronic data chips, though many people had not received one, or bothered to apply for one, by January 2017.43 Municipal governments and agencies responsible for administering these services are responsible for storing “My Number” data, leading to privacy concerns, especially in light of high profile cyberattacks that have exposed personal information (see Technical Attacks).44 The Personal Information Protection Commission reported that personal information linked with "My Number" had been leaked or mistakenly disposed of in 273 instances from April to September 2017;45 some cases of fraud were also reported.46

Some digital activities require separate registration. Major mobile carriers require customers to present identification documents in order to subscribe. Internet cafe users are required to produce formal ID such as a driver’s license and register their name and address. Police can request these details, along with usage logs, if they detect illegal online activity.

Under voluntary guidelines drafted by four ISPs in 2005, service providers automatically inform police of internet users identified on pro-suicide websites, and comply with law enforcement requests for information related to acts of self-harm.47 A law enacted in 2003 and revised in 2008 prohibits electronic communications encouraging sexual activity with minors.48 Under the law, all online dating services must register with the police, verify their customers’ ages with a driver’s license or credit card, and delete or block content that appears to involve someone under 18; most services voluntarily monitor messages in real-time to ensure compliance.

Intimidation and Violence

No physical violence has been reported against bloggers or internet users in relation to their online activity, though there were frequent reports of online abuse, including against minority communities (see Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation). In one such case, a human rights activist and third-generation ethnic Korean resident in Japan received hateful messages from a right-wing journalist. She was also smeared as a North Korean spy on Twitter. After two years of harassment, she moved to Germany in early 2018.49

Technical Attacks

Cyberattacks occasionally target civil society and private companies. Most recently in April 2018, cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. reported that the Chinese espionage group APT10 was suspected to have targeted Japanese defense companies with a spear-phishing campaign.50 The attacks may have been to elicit Japan’s policy on North Korea’s nuclear capacity. One significant instance affecting civil society were attacks in 2013 targeting at least 33 antinuclear citizens groups.51

Public attention to cybersecurity threats has increased since mid-2015, when 1.25 million citizens were affected by the release of personal information obtained by hackers who illegally accessed Japan’s pension system using an email virus.52 Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are part of the arsenal used by nationalists in Japan, China, and South Korea to target perceived opponents in other countries, and cyberattacks have been reported against commercial and government targets.53

On Japan

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  • Global Freedom Score

    96 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    77 100 free