A Obstacles to Access 21 25
B Limits on Content 28 35
C Violations of User Rights 26 40
Last Year's Score & Status
73 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

After several years of decline, internet freedom improved in Japan during this reporting period. There were no reported cases of users being physically attacked due to their online activity, as opposed to the killing of a blogger in the previous reporting period. However, harassment and intimidation persist. There are few obstacles to internet access in Japan, and the legal framework provides strong protections for various forms of expression. People can freely use the internet to mobilize, and netizens did so during the reporting period, notably with the #KuToo movement.

Japan is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed almost continuously since 1955, with stints in opposition from 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2012. Political rights and civil liberties are generally well respected. Outstanding challenges include ethnic and gender-based discrimination and claims of improperly close relations between government and the business sector.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • The government was responsible for 45 percent of all global takedown requests submitted to Twitter between January and July 2019; a total of 12,496 requests were made, relating primarily to domestic laws on money lending, obscenity, and narcotics and psychotropics (see B2).
  • The #KuToo movement, which opposes the requirement for women to wear high heels in the workplace, grew in prominence in June 2019, leading to Japan Airlines changing its dress code for female flight attendants in March 2020 (see B8).
  • In March 2020, the government approved a revision of the Copyright Act, criminalizing the downloading of unlicensed manga, magazines, and academic publications with a prison term of up to two years, a fine of ¥2 million ($18,000), or both. The law passed in June 2020, after the coverage period, and is expected to take effect in January 2021 (see C2).
  • No major incidents of physical violence related to people’s online activity were reported during the coverage period, though incidents of online harassment and intimidation did occur (see C7).

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 expanded in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 6.006 6.006

Thanks in part to strong infrastructure, internet access is widely available to users in Japan. The Inclusive Internet Index 2020 report ranks Japan 25th out of 100 countries in terms of availability, determined by quality and breadth of available infrastructure.1 As of 2019, the penetration rate for households stood at over 95 percent, and the individual penetration rate was almost 90 percent.2 In 2018, the individual internet usage rate stood at 79.8 percent. The penetration rate for smartphones was 59.5 percent that year, compared to 48.2 percent for personal computers.3

Providers continue to develop infrastructure, in part to alleviate mobile network congestion. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) Docomo, KDDI, and SoftBank all launched commercial 5G services in March 2020. Rakuten Mobile partnered with electronics firm NEC to launch 5G services in June 2020. In May, it announced that it would delay that rollout by three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.4 The government has also invested heavily in Wi-Fi networks in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were delayed in late March 2020 due to the pandemic.5 Some companies offer free Wi-Fi, including the private company Wire and Wireless (Wi2), part of the KDDI group, which provides free internet access in restaurants, coffee shops, and train stations; registration requires an email address.6 Wi-Fi access has been tied to mobile subscriptions in the past, which presents a barrier for users without contracts.7

Connectivity is occasionally restricted accidentally or due to network congestion and server outages. For example, in February 2020, data communication was unavailable for a few hours for mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Mineo.8 Infrastructure was also severely damaged in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s east coast, triggering the destruction of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Many people lost service for days or weeks, and mobile phone usage dropped by almost half in the affected areas.9

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Access to the internet remains relatively equal across different segments of the population. Increasing smartphone use has made the mobile market more competitive and resulted in improved pricing options, although the cost of service can otherwise be quite high.

According to the Inclusive Internet Index 2020 report, Japan ranks 13th out of 100 countries surveyed for affordability, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet marketplace.1 Government statistics show that the average cost of internet access for households with two or more people across Japan in 2019 was ¥4,050 ($36.96) compared with ¥3,753 ($34.25) in 2017.2 Sharp regional cost disparities exist; service was more expensive in Japan’s major cities in 2019, with customers paying an average of ¥4,300 ($39.25) per month. Customers in small cities, towns, and villages paid an average monthly price of nearly ¥3,300 ($30.12). Connectivity for households in the heavily populated Kantō region, which includes Tokyo, costs nearly ¥1,000 ($9) more per month than in the least expensive regions, Kyushu and Okinawa, both in the southwest.3 Many providers bundle digital media subscriptions, including cable television, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, and email, pushing costs higher.

Access is well distributed across the population, though it is less common among the elderly.4 Mobile service operators are expanding their market for handsets designed for children and the elderly, with easy-to-use, large-button designs.

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 6.006 6.006

Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure is advanced, and there have been no reports of the government deliberately disconnecting telecommunications service. There is full competition in the ownership of gateways to the international internet.1 Historically, Japan’s internet connections were forged through cooperation among government agencies (including then government-owned NTT), universities, and national research institutions.2

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 5.005 6.006

While users have a choice of providers for internet services, certain companies dominate the market.

Japan has three major mobile operators—au, a KDDI brand; NTT Docomo; and SoftBank. The NTT group remains dominant in practice, though hundreds of other providers offer services including fiber-optic connections and fixed-line or wireless broadband access.1 A new player, e-commerce company Rakuten, which seeks to become Japan’s fourth major mobile service provider, was granted wireless spectrum to launch its own network in 2017.2 In November 2018, Rakuten announced a partnership with KDDI that will allow it to use the latter company’s network.3 Rakuten originally planned to begin offering mobile services in October 2019,4 but Rakuten Mobile launched in April 2020.5 The provider offers high-data mobile services for less than half the price of its rivals.6 The government expects this development to lower costs throughout the market. 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 telephony, and internet services.7 Asymmetric regulation, which creates stricter rules for carriers with a higher market share, has helped diversify the industry.8

Beginning in 2014, the government required mobile service providers to unlock SIM cards if users request it; this has made it easier for users to switch providers and use third-party prepaid SIM cards.9 Although that year’s guidelines from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) garnered criticism, they helped address concerns that the cost of switching providers favored dominant players and created a barrier for new market entrants.10 Besides benefiting Japanese consumers,11 the change was expected to allow tourists who were supposed to visit Japan during the 2020 Summer Olympics to more easily access mobile services.12

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 2.002 4.004

The telecommunications, internet, and broadcast sectors are regulated by the MIC rather than an independent commission. Some self-regulatory bodies also manage content and other issues.

Observers argue that the industry has generally improved since the 2001 establishment of the MIC, which resulted from the merger of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, and the government’s Management and Coordination Agency.1

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported by the relevant companies in these three sectors perform a self-regulatory function. They include television’s Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization and the Internet Content Safety Association, which manages blocking of child sexual abuse images online.2 Observers have accused MIC officials and the prime minister's office of trying to restrict or influence content under the broadcast law.3

B Limits on Content

Following the government’s controversial 2018 move to ask internet service providers (ISPs) to block manga piracy sites, authorities indicated that they planned to introduce new legislation to expand the scope of website blocking that year, though the government made no progress on that effort during the coverage period. Japan’s online environment continued to feature an abundance of diverse content. Content removals do take place, but do not routinely impact political, social, or religious speech. Meanwhile, the online #KuToo movement led to an offline change in dress code for women in the workplace.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 5.005 6.006

Authorities typically do not directly censor online content in Japan. However, 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 The move raised serious concerns over whether the blocking was constitutionally allowed, and the government later indicated that it would introduce legislation to broaden its blocking authority (see B3). Mangamura’s operators have since faced criminal charges (see C3).

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 3.003 4.004

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 has laid down important guidance that set limits on such “right to be forgotten” removals. Some private companies occasionally accept the government’s requests to remove content.

In recent years, content removals have focused on hate speech and illegal content, including child sexual abuse images and intimate images shared without the subject’s consent. The Tokyo-based Safer Internet Association (SIA) reported that it was asked to deal with over 7,276 cases of nonconsensual sharing of intimate images in 2019, and secured the deletion of the content in 6,771 (93 percent) of those cases.1

Inflammatory, nationalist speech targeting Japanese residents of Korean origin and other minority groups is also subject to removal. In 2017, the Japanese video website Niconico took down two videos posted from an internet protocol (IP) address in Osaka after municipal officials flagged them for violating a local ordinance regulating hate speech.2 In 2016, Makoto Sakurai, a personality known for anti-Korean rhetoric, opened a channel on online television station AbemaTV; a rush of online criticism followed, and the channel was deleted.3

The Internet Hotline Center (IHC) received 234,393 reports of potentially illegal or harmful content in 2019, less than half of the previous year’s tally. However, the rates of content found to be illegal or harmful increased.4

Social media platforms occasionally restrict content at the government’s request. Between July and December 2019, Facebook removed access to three items of content after receiving court orders.5 During the same period, Twitter received 12,496 requests for content removal, a 143 percent increase over the previous six months.6 Japanese takedown requests represented 45 percent of all legal takedown requests worldwide. The requests related primarily to domestic laws regarding money lending, obscenity, and narcotics and psychotropics. The platform complied with 33.8 percent of the requests.

Service providers protect themselves from civil liability by adhering to voluntary guidelines on takedown requests.7 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.8 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 fulfills the request with the poster’s permission—or without it if the individual fails to respond. If the poster refuses permission, the service provider is authorized to assess the complaint and act on it if it is deemed 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.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 3.003 4.004

While the government is relatively transparent in its censorship decisions, recent blocking and efforts to give authorities more censorship power have raised concerns.

For ISPs to block particular websites, they must monitor their customers' online activity to determine whether they are accessing the sites in question, which could violate the constitutional right to secrecy of communications.1 Following the government’s effort to block manga piracy sites in early 2018, observers expressed concern that the move conflicted with the Telecommunications Business Act and the constitutional ban on censorship.2 Shortly after NTT announced that it would comply with the government’s request, a customer sued the company on the grounds that the blocking violated privacy guarantees.3

In the wake of the blocking attempts, the government indicated that it would introduce new legislation to expand its authority to formally order blocking, which current law allows only for sites found to host child sexual abuse images.4 In June 2018, the government convened a panel to review potential legislation targeting websites that host pirated content. The panel allegedly suspended its efforts to draft the legislation in October 2018 after failing to reach consensus on whether the blocking would violate the constitutional right to secrecy of communications.5

ISPs voluntarily filter child sexual abuse images, and many offer parents the option to filter certain other content to protect young internet users.6 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.7 Otherwise, individuals or police ask ISPs to administratively delete contested or illegal content. A 2014 law addressed the issue of content removal and nonconsensually shared intimate images (see B2 and C2). Under that law, providers must comply with takedown requests within two days.8

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 service providers to install filtering software that would enable parents to control the content seen by their children. A coalition of groups, including the Japan Internet Providers Association and the Movement of Internet Active Users, an organization that advocates for users’ rights, lobbied against the mandate, and mobile users can now select voluntary filters.9

“Right to be forgotten” cases increased around the same time as a landmark 2014 decision on the topic by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Until early 2017, there was no similar legal guidance in Japan. However, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled in favor of Google and established criteria for delisting search results that same year.10 In this case, a man asked Google to remove search results documenting a crime he committed over five years earlier.11 The court stated that “removal of information can be demanded only when privacy protection concerns clearly outweigh the public’s interest in the disclosure of information online.”12 The court indicated that points such as the content of the search results, the scope of disclosure, the 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.13 During the coverage period, there were three judgments regarding the removal of criminal records from the internet.14

Courts have also ordered content to be removed in defamation cases, although there were no such rulings during the coverage period. In a 2015 lawsuit, the Tokyo High Court ordered Yahoo Japan to delete 11 search results that linked a man’s name to criminal behavior. The man originally argued that he was defamed by false information.15

The IHC, operated through the SIA 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.16 The IHC’s website offers online forms for reporting objectionable content, such as material that features obscene images, child sexual abuse images, illegal drugs, or prostitution, as well as a referencing system that allows users to look up the status of submitted reports. In 2016, the IHC began providing reports to “Safe-line,” a website maintained by the SIA.17 Once the SIA receives a report, it will either file a police report or make a request for removal to the relevant domestic or overseas provider.18

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

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 historical events like World War II. Individuals and public figures who break this social convention risk censure and even attacks from right-wing extremists, who notoriously attempted to assassinate the mayor of Nagasaki on these grounds in 1990. Though exceptional, such incidents still exert a chilling effect on Japanese expression.

In a 2017 report, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression noted that there were “significant worrying signals” regarding self-censorship among journalists on issues such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.1 There is also a degree of self-censorship concerning human rights problems, in some cases linked to instances of apparent political pressure.2

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

Progovernment online commentators are prevalent across Japan. For example, the Jiminto (LDP) Net Supporters Club (J-NSC), organized in 2010, had about 19,000 members as of 2017. The group essentially serves as an online public relations effort for the LDP, though its rules make clear that members are responsible for their own social media posts. Such posts have attacked critics of the LDP government and have at times initiated negative campaigns against opposition lawmakers.1 The J-NSC remained active during the coverage period.2

Political bots have also permeated the Japanese internet. 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.3 Ahead of the Okinawa gubernatorial election in September 2018, misinformation again spread online.4 To help limit its effectiveness, two local dailies instituted fact-checking processes.

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 the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The MIC requested that four industry associations monitor false or unsubstantiated content circulating about the disaster online. Some observers said this was an attempt to control public discourse, though deletions were not widespread. Media scrutiny of reportage involving the 2011 disaster has continued. In 2016, major Japanese news outlets reported that government officials pressured TEPCO not to use the term “meltdown” at a news conference shortly after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident.5 In May 2019, it was revealed that the national government and Fukushima Prefecture paid over ¥24 billion ($219 million) to an advertising agency to manage public relations, including in online outlets, after the disaster.6

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

Independent online media and citizen media outlets have faced obstacles in their work, particularly due to the prevalence of the kisha club, or formal press association, system. Kisha clubs include reporters covering institutions such as government ministries or major corporations, but are only open to traditional media companies. In addition, some online news outlets struggle to sustain themselves financially.

Kisha clubs and an advertising market that favors established players may be preventing digital media from gaining a stronger foothold in the market. Kisha clubs provide essential access to officials in Japan, but they have been accused of denying such access to young journalists and new media outlets; the system may also limit some reporters’ access to certain locations, such as areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. 1 In 2017, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression continued to criticize the kisha club system.2

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 4.004 4.004

Japan has a diverse online landscape. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and international blog-hosting services are freely available, as are popular local platforms like Niconico, the 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.1

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 6.006 6.006

Digital activism in Japan has been highly effective at both the local and the national level, and online mobilization tools are freely available.

Online grassroots movements emerged in the mid-1980s, when local community networks organized to protest deforestation in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture,1 and Renkon NeT promoted civic monitoring of radiation levels nationwide.2 In 1993, the nonprofit ISP Japan Computer Access for Empowerment (JCAFE) was set up to support social movements and NGOs. It ran workshops and demonstrations and offered server space, site rentals, email hosting, and bulletin boards.3 Since then, many forms of digital activism have taken on social issues.

A number of initiatives sprang up in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. These included interactive maps to share public information about disaster relief,4 the use of Google’s Person Finder web application to facilitate rescue and recovery,5 and the online organization of large demonstrations and protests against nuclear energy.

Women in Japan have mobilized online through the #KuToo movement, which opposes the requirement for women to wear high heels in the workplace. In June 2019, the movement’s organizer, actress and freelance writer Ishikawa Yumi, submitted a petition, which then bore almost 20,000 signatures, to the Health Ministry calling for an end to the requirement.6 In March 2020, Japan Airlines changed its dress code, allowing female flight attendants to wear pants and flat shoes.7 In April 2019, demonstrators calling for a reform of Japan’s anti-rape law, which places a heavy legal burden on survivors of sexual violence, began holding monthly protests, culminating in a June 2019 demonstration in several cities. The protests were accompanied by online mobilization, including the use of hashtags like #MeToo and #WithYou.

During the previous coverage period, users rallied behind a Tokyo Shimbun reporter who was targeted by the government. In February 2019, the Cabinet Office reportedly sent a letter demanding that the reporter be “restricted” from asking questions at press events. In response, hashtags such as “Tokyo Shimbun reporter restricted from asking questions,” “toward a country where we can freely ask questions,” and “we have the right to know” trended on Twitter.8 An online petition in support of the journalist also gathered more than 17,000 signatures.9

C Violations of User Rights

While arrests under the copyright law are periodically reported, this coverage period featured few criminal cases related to online activity. However, amendments to the Copyright Law, which will go into effect in January 2021, further criminalized the downloading of certain types of content. The National Operation Towards IoT Clean Environment (NOTICE) program, which was introduced in 2018, remained in effect during the coverage period and allowed government ministries to attempt to access as many as 200 million domestic devices with little oversight. No major incidents of physical violence related to online activity were recorded during the coverage period.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 5.005 6.006

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 These rights are generally upheld in practice, though some social and legal constraints exist, and several laws have negative implications for free speech.

The Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets came into force in 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

A 2016 law outlined measures that authorities could take to educate the public about hate speech, while also combating such speech when directed against people of overseas origin and their descendants.4 The law’s authors struggled to balance restrictions on racial and ethnic slurs with freedom-of-expression guarantees in the constitution.5 The law did not actually ban or penalize hate speech, leading some critics to argue that it would be ineffective as a result.6 In 2017, several municipalities asked for a clearer definition of hate speech under the law.7 Since the law’s introduction, many cities have subsequently moved to legislate against hate speech (see C2).

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

A number of laws regulate online activity, including by imposing civil and criminal liability. Under the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, intentional leaks can draw penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, while unintentional leaks can be punished with up to two years in prison. In addition, individuals who knowingly receive secrets from an administrative organ risk up to five years’ imprisonment if the disclosures are found to be intentional, and one year for disclosures made through negligence.1 Implementation guidelines for the law described four main fields of state secrets—defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism—which are further divided into 55 categories.2

Other laws prescribe potentially disproportionate penalties for online activity. A 2012 legal revision targeting copyright violators applies to any internet users who download content they know has been illegally copied, as opposed to just those engaged in piracy for commercial gain.3 While both uploading and downloading pirated material was already illegal under the copyright law, with uploaders subject to 10 years’ imprisonment or fines of up to ¥10 million ($91,000), the version in effect since 2012 added two years in jail or fines of up to ¥2 million ($18,000) for downloading a single pirated file.4

In response to the attempted blocking of manga piracy sites in early 2018 (see B1), the Cultural Council of the Cultural Affairs Agency discussed amending the copyright law to expand the types of content that would be illegal to download or reproduce beyond pirated music and videos, to include material such as social media posts showing animated characters or personal blogs with icons containing copyrighted images.5 In March 2019, in light of free-expression concerns and opposition from some LDP members, the government decided not to move forward with the proposed bill.6

However, in March 2020, the government approved a revision of the Copyright Act, making it illegal to download unlicensed manga, magazines, and academic publications, in addition to music and videos that are already criminalized under the copyright law. Those who violate the revised law face up to two years’ imprisonment, a ¥2 million ($18,000) fine, or both. The bill does not go as far as the 2019 proposal, and allows users to download image-based material or certain forms of academic content that is meant for private use.7 The law was passed in June 2020, after the coverage period, and is expected to take effect in January 2021.8

A 2013 revision of the Public Offices Election Act lifted long-standing restrictions on the use of the internet for election campaigns. There are still limits 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.9 While these provisions were contested, and revisions are still planned,10 politicians who violate the existing restrictions face a potential fine of ¥300,000 ($2,700) or one year in prison; imprisonment would strip perpetrators of their right to vote or run for office. Voters found to have improperly solicited support for a candidate via email could be fined ¥500,000 ($4,600) or imprisoned for two years.11

Article 175 of the penal code bans the sale or distribution of “obscene” material, and while the relevant provisions date back more than century, they are considered to apply online.12 The article does not define what constitutes obscenity, leading to concerns that it could be invoked against artistic expression or used to curtail the rights of LGBT+ people.13

A 2011 law criminalized the creation or distribution of computer viruses without a legitimate reason.14 Individuals can be sentenced to up to three years in prison or fines of up to ¥500,000 ($4,600). Many experts have indicated their concern about ambiguous components of the law that could be abused. During the coverage period, a number of users were charged with virus-related offenses (see C3).

Other laws regulate online activity but are not known to have resulted in abuse or disproportionate penalties. Heightened awareness of nonconsensual sharing of intimate images and online harassment culminated in the adoption of a law criminalizing such activity in 2014. Offenders can face prison sentences of up to three years or fines as large as ¥500,000 ($4,600), and third-party distribution can draw up to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of ¥300,000 ($2,700).15 Japan’s antistalking law, originally enacted in 2000, was revised in 2013 to address email harassment, and further revised in 2016 to penalize repeated blog posts or messages on social networking services.16

Some municipal governments have also introduced local ordinances on hate speech, including the government of Osaka in 2016. Osaka’s ordinance authorized the public identification 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.17 In December 2019, Kawasaki City created the first nondiscrimination ordinance that includes criminal penalties for hate speech in public spaces. The city has considered measures to deal with online hate speech, but did not implement a specific ordinance to address this activity. However, the ordinance did stipulate that the city would take measures to prevent the spread of hate on the internet.18 Sagamihara City is also planning to enact a criminal ordinance that would target hate speech against members of specific ethnic or racial groups in 2021.19

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 5.005 6.006

No citizens faced politically motivated arrest or prosecution for their online activity during the coverage period.

However, in the previous reporting period, several users were arrested and charged under a 2011 law criminalizing the creation and use of computer viruses without a legitimate reason (see C2). In June 2018, police announced that they arrested 16 website operators for allegedly using a service called Coinhive to mine cryptocurrencies via visitors’ computers without their consent.1 Some of those arrested were fined ¥100,000 ($900).2 In March 2019, the Yokohama District Court acquitted one defendant, ruling that the cryptocurrency mining program did not constitute a virus.3 However, in February 2020, he was convicted and received a ¥100,000 ($900) fine, after the Tokyo High Court overturned the acquittal.4 The individual’s defense team plans to file an appeal.5

In July 2018, another user was convicted for illegally mining cryptocurrency and received a suspended three-year prison term.6 In March 2019, a 13-year-old girl was arrested for spreading a URL that triggered an infinite loop of pop-up windows.7

There are periodic reports of arrests under the copyright law, which carries possible prison terms for both uploading and downloading content without the permission of the copyright owner (see C2). The 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.8 In 2017, two people were sentenced to 18 months in prison, a three-year suspension, and a ¥500,000 ($4,600) fine for copyright-related offenses.9

Several operators of manga piracy site Mangamura were arrested and faced charges in 2019 (see B1). In September 2019, the site’s main operator, Hoshino Romi, was arrested after being deported from the Philippines to Japan, on charges of violating the Copyright Law and the Organized Crime Punishment Law.10 That same month, one man pled guilty to uploading material to Mangamura in September 2019, while two others pled not guilty.11

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

Individuals can generally use the internet anonymously in Japan. However, some digital activities require separate registration. Major mobile service providers require customers to present identification documents in order to subscribe. Internet café users are required to produce formal identification documents such as a driver’s license, and to register their name and address. Police can request these details, along with usage logs, if they detect illegal online activity.

There are no explicit restrictions on encryption. Under the criminal procedure code, however, investigators can order a person to decrypt an encrypted electronic record.1

Increased concerns over harassment, intimidation, and slander during the coverage period led members of the ruling LDP to meet with experts to discuss the possibility of deanonymizing the accounts of those who engage in such behavior online. In May 2020, the government disclosed its interest in legislating on the matter.2 The MIC’s minister, Takaichi Sanae, voiced her interest in amending the Provider Liability Limitation Law, which defines disclosure-of-sender information.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Japan’s Supreme Court protects privacy in part through its interpretation of Article 13 of the constitution, which provides for the right to life and liberty.1 The constitutional right to secrecy of communications is also protected under telecommunications laws.2 However, recent developments in Japan have raised serious concerns about increased surveillance, including reports of opaque surveillance operations and the approval of a conspiracy law that may allow police to seek wiretap warrants in a wider range of circumstances.

In November 2018, the amended Telecommunications Business Act and the Act on the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) came into effect.3 The changes allowed the NICT and the MIC to carry out the NOTICE program, authorizing them to attempt to access domestic internet-enabled devices for up to five years in an effort to strengthen cybersecurity (see C8).4 With seemingly no judicial oversight and potential access to millions of users’ personal devices, NOTICE has raised serious privacy concerns. In February 2019, civil society groups and ordinary users issued a joint statement asking the MIC to suspend the program,5 although the program continued. In May 2020, the NICT released a summary of NOTICE-related activities, disclosing that it attempted to access 110 million IP addresses, and was successful in 2,249 cases.6

The conspiracy law passed in 2017 raised the possibility of more government surveillance. It criminalized “planning” to commit a series of newly designated “serious crimes” that could supposedly fund terrorism, including copyright violations, potentially making more suspects subject to wiretaps. The UN’s 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.”7

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.8 In 2016, the law was expanded to include fraud, theft, and child sexual abuse images.9 The law obliges agents to notify targets of wiretaps after investigations are concluded and inform the Diet (parliament) about the number they implement annually. Critics say the law does not prevent the systematic storage of intercepted communications or protect innocent parties.10 In February 2020, the Justice Ministry announced that 9,133 mobile phone calls were tapped in 10 cases during 2019, leading to 48 arrests. Of these, 8,795 mobile phone calls were intercepted without the involvement of a mobile service provider in 8 cases since June 2019, following a change in the law.

The wiretap law was controversial when it passed, in part due to the authorities’ periodic abuse of surveillance powers.11 Security agents and the military were accused of conducting illegal surveillance in cases involving national security in 2003 and 2004.12 In June 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to the police practice of 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 monitoring involved digital as opposed to physical surveillance.13

Some Japanese security agencies may have equipment enabling the blanket collection and monitoring of communications data, though it is unclear how such technology has been used, what laws govern its employment, and what, if any, safeguards there are. The 2014 state secrets law, which covers national security issues, may make surveillance abuses harder to document (see C1 and C2).

In May 2018, public broadcaster NHK and the Intercept reported on the activities of the Directorate for Signals Intelligence (DFS), a spy agency that monitors and analyzes electronic communications.14 The reporting claimed that the government deployed a clandestine online surveillance program, dubbed MALLARD, to observe communications passing between satellites.15 The information collected is reportedly stored for around two months, during which it is analyzed to determine if it is of interest to the DFS. It is unclear whether and to what extent domestic users have been caught up in the program. An earlier Intercept report from 2017 analyzed leaked documents that suggested Japanese police and intelligence agencies were involved in in regional surveillance operations managed by the US National Security Agency (NSA). The report notes that the NSA provided XKEYSCORE, a surveillance tool that can search through a range of content and metadata online, to the DFS.16

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 3.003 6.006

Service providers and other technology companies can be required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users. Some companies cooperate with investigative authorities by turning over their users' data without receiving a court order to do so.

Some companies report on data requests they receive from government agencies. LINE, a messaging application with servers based in Japan, reported that 86 percent of the global law enforcement requests for user data it received between January and June 2018 came from Japanese entities. 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.1 Google reported 243 requests for user data between July and December 2018, and produced some data in 83 percent of cases. Facebook reported 20 government requests involving 23 accounts between July and December 2018. The platform provided data in 45 percent of cases.2

A 2003 law protects personal information collected electronically by private– and public-sector organizations when it consists of more than 5,000 records.3 Law enforcement requests for this data should be supported by a warrant.4 Amendments passed by the Diet in 2015 defined “personal information” in more specific terms as “biometric information” and “numeric data that is capable of identifying a specific individual.”5 Anonymization provisions allow for personal data to be transferred to a third party without the consent of the subject if specific requirements are met.6 Criminal sanctions for misusing personal data and restrictions on the transfer of personal data to overseas jurisdictions that lack equivalent safeguards were also strengthened.7 Finally, the amendments established the Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC) as an “independent authority under the Cabinet Office,” replacing the Consumer Affairs Agency.8

Under voluntary guidelines drafted by four ISPs in 2005, service providers automatically inform police of internet users identified on websites that endorse suicide, and comply with law enforcement requests for information related to acts of self-harm.9 A law enacted in 2003 and revised in 2008 prohibits electronic communications encouraging sexual activity with minors.10 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.

Changes to the legal frameworks surrounding privacy and surveillance are often considered in the context of the ongoing digitization of citizens’ personal records. The 2013 My Number law introduced a unique 12-digit number for all long-term residents that is used 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 2021.11 Photo identification cards with My Number information contain electronic data chips, though many people did not receive one, or did not apply for one, as of 2017.12 Municipal governments and agencies responsible for administering these services are tasked with storing My Number data, leading to privacy concerns, especially in light of high-profile cyberattacks that have exposed personal information (see C8).13 The PIPC reported that personal information linked with My Number had been leaked or mistakenly disposed of in 157 instances from April to September 2018;14 some cases of fraud were also reported.15

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 4.004 5.005

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 4 because no major incidents of physical violence resulting from online activity were recorded during the coverage period.

While Japan is typically free from physical violence against bloggers and internet users, the previous coverage period featured the murder of a popular blogger and cybercrime expert; several cases of harassment and intimidation linked to people’s online activities took place in 2020, as well. Ishikawa Yumi, the woman who launched the #KuToo campaign, reported facing online harassment over her work, frequently from men (see B8).1

In June 2018, during the previous coverage period, Okamoto Kenichiro, known as Hagex online, was murdered in Fukuoka after presenting a seminar on best practices to deal with online disagreements and abuse, among other topics.2 The man who later confessed to the stabbing allegedly harassed Okamoto online; in November 2019, he received an 18-year prison term.3

Individuals who have criticized the ruling LDP and the government have also faced targeted harassment. In May 2020, many celebrities voiced their opposition to a draft bill that would allow the government to delay the retirement of senior prosecutors, arguing that the bill undermined the constitutional separation of powers.4 Musician Takemura Kiriko authored a Twitter post in favor of the campaign that month, but deleted it after some social media users left negative comments; one user wrote “a singer should just sing” in response to her post. Some tabloid newspapers and online news outlets have reportedly harassed journalists who disagreed with the government more broadly.5

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 2.002 3.003

Cybersecurity efforts have ramped up ahead of the originally planned 2020 Olympics, particularly around internet of things (IoT) devices.1 In February 2019, the NICT, under the MIC, launched the NOTICE program,2 which will try to crack the passwords of about 200 million internet-connected devices in homes and offices, starting with webcams, routers, and sensors, in order to better secure vulnerable devices with stronger passwords. If a device is successfully hacked, its owner will be advised to strengthen security measures, for instance by making their passwords more complex. Despite promises that the program will not target phones and personal computers, critics have expressed privacy concerns (see C5).

Cyberattacks occasionally target civil society and private companies. In one significant cyberattack against civil society organizations, at least 33 antinuclear citizens’ groups were targeted in 2013.3 In April 2019, the Macnica Networks Corporation, an information-technology trading firm, stated that groups reportedly connected to China were suspected of targeting private companies; it cited alleged efforts by Chinese cyberespionage group APT10 to hack Japanese defense companies in 2018.4

In January 2020, the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation disclosed that that it experienced massive cyberattacks in June 2019. Chinese groups BlackTech and Tick were reportedly behind the breaches.5 In February 2020, the Defense Ministry reported that some “sensitive” information may have been leaked as the result of the Mitsubishi breach. 6 That same month, the ministry disclosed that Kobe Steel, NEC, and aerial surveying company Pasco were also targeted by cyberattacks between 2016 and 2018.7

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.8

On Japan

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  • Global Freedom Score

    96 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    77 100 free
  • Freedom in the World Status

  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested