A Obstacles to Access 21 25
B Limits on Content 29 35
C Violations of User Rights 26 40
Last Year's Score & Status
75 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Internet freedom continued to improve in Japan during this reporting period. There are few obstacles to internet access, no blocks on websites, 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 to protest discrimination against women and LGBT+ communities. However, harassment and intimidation, particularly against women and individuals with at least one Black parent, persist. During the COVID-19 pandemic, medical personnel were also targets for harassment on social media.

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, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • Japanese courts continue to uphold strict criteria for delisting search results on major platforms. In June 2020, the Tokyo High Court reversed a lower court ruling that Twitter must remove posts which detailed the plaintiff’s arrest records (see B3).
  • An online petition that received 145,000 signatures called for the resignation of the chairman of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Yoshiro Mori, after he made sexist comments. Mori resigned a week after the petition was created (see B8).
  • In January 2021, the revised Copyright Act, which criminalizes the downloading of unlicensed manga, magazines, and academic publications, took effect. Authorities have used the law to convict the operators of manga piracy site Mangamura (see C2 and C3).
  • 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, particularly against women, individuals with at least one Black parent, and medical personnel, did occur (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

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

Due in part to strong infrastructure, internet access is widely available to users in Japan. The Inclusive Internet Index 2021 report ranks Japan 17th out of 120 countries surveyed in terms of availability, determined by quality and breadth of available infrastructure.1 As of 2021, the internet penetration rate for households stood at 93 percent.2

Providers continue to develop telecommunications infrastructure, in part to alleviate mobile network congestion. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) Docomo, KDDI, and SoftBank all launched commercial fifth-generation (5G) services in March 2020.3 Rakuten Mobile partnered with electronics firm NEC to launch 5G services, originally planned for June 2020. After a three-month delay in rollout due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rakuten Mobile launched 5G services in September 2020.4 The government has also invested heavily in Wi-Fi networks in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were postponed and held in August 2021.5 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. According to a summary by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), since 2014, there have been fewer severe outages - specifically three to eight per year- compared to the previous decade.8 In February 2020, data communication was unavailable for a few hours for mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Mineo customers.9 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.10

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 2021 report, Japan ranks 12th out of 100 countries surveyed for affordability, defined by cost of access relative to income and the level of competition in the internet market.1 Government statistics show that the average cost of internet access for households with two or more people across Japan in 2020 was ¥3,601 ($34.59) compared with ¥3,753 ($36.05) in 2017.2 Sharp regional cost disparities exist; service was more expensive in Japan’s major cities in 2020, with customers paying an average of ¥3,835 ($36.89) per month. Customers in small cities, towns, and villages paid an average monthly price of nearly ¥3,024 ($29.04). Connectivity for households in the heavily populated Kantō region, which includes Tokyo, costs nearly ¥1,300 ($12.49) more per month than in the least expensive regions, Tohokuin the northeast.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 access is less common among the elderly.4 Mobile service operators are expanding the 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, launched its mobile service in April 2020.2

In January 2021, the three major mobile phone companies launched new low-cost plans, after decades of pressure from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.3 Rakuten, in an effort to gain a competitive edge, launched cheaper plans in April 2021 compared to those offered by the other three mobile service providers. However, there is some criticism that the ongoing price war has prevented smaller companies from entering the market.4 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 telephone, and internet services.5 Asymmetric regulation, which creates stricter rules for providers with a higher market share, has helped diversify the industry.6

Beginning in 2014, the government required mobile service providers to unlock SIM cards at user request; this has made it easier for users to switch providers and use third-party prepaid SIM cards.7 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.8 Besides benefiting Japanese consumers,9 the change was expected to allow tourists who were supposed to visit Japan during the 2020 Summer Olympics to more easily access mobile services.10

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 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (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 MIC was established in 2001, 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 the 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

There are substantial concerns that MIC officials are increasingly influenced by business executives who use gifts to garner favor for their policies from government officials. After NTT Docomo became a wholly owned subsidiary of NTT in December 2020,4 competitors and others criticized the acquisition, saying it was contrary to the intent of the 1999 NTT Law. Despite this pushback, the MIC supported NTT.5 In February 2021, weekly news magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that NTT's president and other executives had repeatedly treated officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, including Deputy Director General Yasuhiko Taniwaki, to lavish dinners.6 Taniwaki, who had been instrumental in the government’s policies on mobile phone prices, was quickly transferred to another position.7

In March 2021, the Cabinet approved Shunichi Tokura, the former chairman of the Japan Music Rights Association (JASRAC), as Commissioner for Cultural Affairs. The Agency for Cultural Affairs has jurisdiction over copyright law and provides guidance and supervision to copyright management organizations, including JASRAC. Due to Tokura’s previous position and his lobbying efforts on behalf of JASRAC, his appointment sparked concerns about his ability to balance protecting the rights of artists and creators while also ensuring the freedom of individuals who use copyrighted works.8

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 6.006 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 5 to 6 because the government did not block any websites or platforms during the coverage period.

Authorities typically do not order service providers to block or filter content in Japan.

In July 2020, lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party urged the government to restrict the use of TikTok over concerns that Chinese officials might be able to access sensitive user data via the app.1 At the end of the coverage period, the government had not taken steps to restrict use of the platform.

In April 2018, the government asked internet service providers (ISPs) to block manga piracy sites, including Mangamura, AniTube!, and MioMio, 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.2 The move raised serious concerns over whether blocking was constitutionally allowed, and the government later indicated that it would introduce legislation to broaden its blocking authority (see B3). However, a revised and newly enacted anti-piracy law criminalizes illegally downloading manga, magazines, and academic texts, but did not expand the government’s ability to block websites (see C2).3

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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.1 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 manage 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.2

Previously, inflammatory, nationalist speech targeting Japanese residents of Korean origin and other minority groups was 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.3 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.4

Social media platforms occasionally restrict content at the government’s request. Between July and December 2020, Facebook restricted access to one piece of content in response to an order from Brazil’s Supreme Court related to pages that supported Brazilian President Bolsanaro.5 During the same period, Twitter received 16,648 requests for content removal.6 Twitter complied with 29.4 percent of the requests.7

Service providers protect themselves from civil liability by adhering to voluntary guidelines on takedown requests.8 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.9 In 2002, industry associations produced guidelines designed to protect ISPs from legal liability within the jurisdiction of the Japanese courts. 10 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, previous 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 legislation 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 intimate images shared without consent (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. In 2017, 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 In June 2020, the Tokyo High Court reversed a Tokyo District Court ruling that Twitter remove posts which detailed the plaintiff’s arrest records.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 Internet Hotline Center (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 residents 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 online expression.

In a 2017 report, the United Nation’s (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 ($217 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.1 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. 2 In 2017, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression criticized the kisha club system.3 In April 2021, Reporters Without Borders also criticized the kisha club system in their annual World Press Freedom Index.4

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 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 YouTubers and Instagram personalities have also become increasingly influential in recent years.

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.

A number of initiatives sprang up in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. These included interactive maps to share public information about disaster relief,1 the use of Google’s Person Finder web application to facilitate rescue and recovery,2 and the online organization of large demonstrations and protests against nuclear energy.

Japanese individuals, particularly women, have used the internet to protest against gender-based discrimination and effect tangible change. In February 2021, protests erupted against then chairman of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Yoshiro Mori, after he said "board meetings involving many women are lengthy” and that women on the organizing committee “all [knew] their place.” Protestors, particularly women, used the hashtags #WomenWhoRefuseToKnowTheirPlace and #DontBeSilent in a show of solidarity and in defiance of sexism. A Change.org petition calling for Mori's resignation garnered more than 145,000 signatures in one week. A week after the petition launched, it was revealed that Mori would resign as the head of the Olympic Organizing Committee.3

Women in Japan have also mobilized online through the #KuToo movement, which opposes a requirement that women wear high heels in the workplace. In June 2019, the movement’s organizer, actress and freelance writer Ishikawa Yumi, submitted an online petition, which then bore almost 20,000 signatures, to the Health Ministry calling for an end to the requirement.4 In March 2020, Japanese central bank Sumitomo Mitsui abolished the official dress code,5 and Japan Airlines changed its dress code, allowing female flight attendants to wear pants and flat shoes.6

Four civil society organizations, J-ALL, Athlete Ally, All Out, and Human Rights Watch jointly called for online signatures for a petition calling for the government to adopt legislation that protects members of the LGBT+ community from discrimination; the petition, which was submitted to the LDP in March 2021, had over 40,000 signatures from Japanese individuals.7 However, the LDP ultimately decided not to submit a bill on LGBT+ equality due to strong opposition by some conservative lawmakers.8

In early 2019, users rallied behind a Tokyo Shimbun reporter who was targeted by the government. In February of that year, 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.9 An online petition in support of the journalist also gathered more than 17,000 signatures.10

C Violations of User Rights

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.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, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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 ($90,692), the version in effect since 2012 added two years in jail or fines of up to ¥2 million ($18,138) 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 2020, the government approved a revision of the Copyright Act, making it illegal to download manga, magazines, and academic publications, in addition to music and videos including in the previous version, without the copyright holder’s permission. Those who violate the revised law face up to two years’ imprisonment, a ¥2 million ($18,138) fine, or both. The bill allows users to download image-based material or certain forms of academic content that is meant for private use.6 The law was passed in June 2020 and took effect in January 2021.7

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.8 While these provisions were contested, and revisions are still planned,9 politicians who violate the existing restrictions face a potential fine of ¥300,000 ($2,720) 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 ($4,534) or imprisoned for two years.10

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.11 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.12

A 2011 law criminalized the creation or distribution of computer viruses without a legitimate reason.13 Individuals can be sentenced to up to three years in prison or fines of up to ¥500,000 ($4,534). Many experts have indicated their concern about ambiguous components of the law that could be abused. During the previous reporting 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 ($4,534), and third-party distribution can draw up to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of ¥300,000 ($2,720).14 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.15

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.16 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.17 Sagamihara City is also planning to enact a criminal ordinance that would target hate speech against members of specific ethnic or racial groups in 2021.18 No ordinance was proposed or passed at the end of the coverage period.

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 5.005 6.006

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

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). In June 2021, after the coverage period, the Fukuoka District Court sentenced Romi Hoshino to three years in prison and a fine of ¥10 million ($90,692) for allegedly operating the manga piracy website, Mangamura (see B1). The judge also ordered the confiscation of approximately ¥62 million ($562,290) that Hoshino had hidden in overseas bank accounts. Three men and three women, who acted as instructors and executors alongside Hoshino, were also convicted of violating the Copyright Act.1 In 2017, two people were sentenced to 18 months in prison, a three-year suspension, and a ¥500,000 ($4,534) fine for copyright-related offenses.2

Journalists who report on sensitive topics also face government and authorities’ pressure in the form of defamation lawsuits. In June 2020, the founder of news site Independent Web Journal, Yasumi Iwakami, had his appeal dismissed regarding a fine he was required to pay for allegedly defaming former Osaka prefectural governor, Toru Hashimoto. Iwakami was sentenced to pay ¥330,000 ($2,992) in September 2019 after he retweeted a post from 2017 that suggested Hashimoto was responsible for the suicide of one of his subordinates.3

Several users have been 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.4 Some of those arrested were fined ¥100,000 ($906).5 In March 2019, the Yokohama District Court acquitted one defendant, ruling that the cryptocurrency mining program did not constitute a virus.6 However, in February 2020, he was convicted and received a ¥100,000 ($906) fine, after the Tokyo High Court overturned the acquittal.7 The individual’s defense team plans to file an appeal.8

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.

The Act on Prevention of Improper Use of Mobile Phones (2005) requires mobile voice communication carriers to verify the identity of subscribers when a contract was terminated or transferred, in order to prevent a situation in which cell phone subscribers cannot be identified. In June 2008, the law was amended to prohibit the transfer of SIM cards without permission and to require rental companies to verify the identity of customers.1

There are no explicit restrictions on encryption. Under the criminal procedure code, however, investigators can order a person to decrypt an encrypted electronic record.2

Increased concerns over harassment, intimidation, and slander during the previous 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, MIC’s minister Takaichi Sanae, voiced her interest in amending the Provider Liability Limitation Law.3 In April 2021, a bill was unanimously passed and enacted in the Diet which amends the Provider Liability Limitation Act to make it easier to identify users who allegedly slander people on the internet. The law is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2022. Under the amended law, an individual can request the court to disclose information about a sender who posted defamatory content. The court has up to six months to decide whether to order a content provider to disclose the sender’s information, and can also order access providers to retain sender’s information during the proceedings. There are concerns that disclosure requests will be misused as a means to suppress the transmission of information.4

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 2021, the NICT released a summary of NOTICE-related activities, disclosing that it attempted to access 112 million IP addresses, and that the NOTICE alert detected 1,817 targets and notified service providers.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 about the number they implement annually. Critics say the law does not prevent the systematic storage of intercepted communications or protect innocent parties.10 On February 19, 2021, the Justice Ministry announced that 20,120 mobile phone calls were tapped in 20 cases during 2020, leading to 152 arrests. The number of interceptions has more than doubled from the previous year, partly due to the introduction of new procedures that allow the police to wiretap individuals without witnesses from telecommunication companies.11

The wiretap law was controversial when it passed, in part due to the authorities’ periodic abuse of surveillance powers.12 Security agents and the military were accused of conducting illegal surveillance in cases involving national security in 2003 and 2004.13 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.14

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.15 The reporting claimed that the government deployed a clandestine online surveillance program, dubbed MALLARD, to observe communications passing between satellites.16 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.17

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 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.

In June 2020, Japan passed amendments to the Act on the Protection of Personal Information. The amendments expanded the scope of personal data and eliminated restrictions on the law’s extraterritorial applications. Under the amended law, overseas companies are also obligated to notify the government of data breaches that involve sensitive information, cause financial injury, or affect more than 1,000 users. The amendments are set to come into effect in 2022.1

In May 2021, the government launched an investigation into the data management polices of LINE, a messaging application with servers based in Japan, after a report revealed that Chinese engineers had accessed LINE’s data without the company’s knowledge. 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

Changes to the legal frameworks surrounding privacy and surveillance are often considered in the ongoing digitization of citizens’ personal records. The 2013 My Number law introduced a unique 12-digit number for all long-term residents used to access unified social welfare services and taxation purposes. In May 2021, the Diet enacted the Digital Reform Bill, which streamlines how officials in Japan handle and share data and revises how personal data is protected under the law. Specifically, the government will consolidate personal information among local government and central government servers, and will link personal data to individuals’ unique 12-digit numbers.9

During the drafting process, it became clear that the government's priority was to effectively manage internet users’ information rather than to protect personal data.10 Experts are concerned that the new policies to streamline data handling between the local and central governments will dilute personal information protections previously established by local governments and may enable increased government surveillance.11 During Diet sessions, when questions were raised as to whether the Ministry of Defense and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office were intercepting phone calls and e-mails, the government declined to answer.12

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.13 A law enacted in 2003 and revised in 2008 prohibits electronic communications encouraging sexual activity with minors.14 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.

Some companies report on data requests they receive from government agencies. LINE reported that 80 percent of the global law enforcement requests for user data that it received between July and December 2020 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.15 Google reported 145 requests for user data between January and June 2020 and produced some data in 83 percent of cases.16 Facebook reported 66 government requests involving 82 accounts between July and December 2020. The platform provided data in 42 percent of cases.17

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 relation to their online activities? 4.004 5.005

Users rarely face physical and offline harassment in relation to their online activities. However, several cases of online harassment were documented during the coverage period.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in online harassment directed at medical personnel and individuals who allegedly contracted COVID-19. In a survey by the Japan Medical Association, there were 700 incidents between October and December 2020 where medical staff treating COVID-19 patients were subject to online harassment.1 COVID-19 patients and individuals who allegedly tested positive for the virus also faced harassment on social media.2

Individuals who are half-black and half-Japanese, continue to face racism online. In May 2021, Aren Hachimura, the younger brother of NBA basketball player Rui Hachimura, received racist messages over SNS. The brothers’ father is from West Africa.

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.3 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. Some tabloid newspapers and online news outlets have reportedly harassed journalists who disagreed with the government more broadly.4

Women also continue to face targeted online harassment. Hana Kimura was subject to harassment, primarily because of her gender, after she appeared on the reality television show "Terrace House.” In May 2020, Kimura committed suicide. Following her death, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications announced her intention to amend the Provider Liability Limitation Law (see C4).5 During the previous coverage period, Ishikawa Yumi, the woman who launched the #KuToo campaign, reported facing online harassment over her work, frequently from men (see B8).6

Physical violence in relation to online activities is rare. However, in June 2018, 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.7 The man who later confessed to the stabbing allegedly harassed Okamoto online; in November 2019, he received an 18-year prison sentence.8

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

While cyberattacks against journalists and activists are rare, private companies have been targeted in previous coverage periods.

Cybersecurity efforts ramped up ahead of the summer Olympics, which were originally planned for 2020, particularly around internet of things (IoT) devices.1

In October 2020, the UK National Cyber Security Centre revealed that Russian military intelligence was planning a cyberattack on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 2021 in an attempt to disrupt the event.2 In April 2021, CrowdStrike, a US cybersecurity company, stated that the risk of cyberattacks at the event was low because of the restrictions on audience.3

In February 2019, the NICT, under the MIC, launched the NOTICE program,4 which attempts 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, although none were reported during the coverage period. In one significant cyberattack against civil society organizations, at least 33 antinuclear citizens’ groups were targeted in 2013.5 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 2018.6

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.7 In February 2020, the Defense Ministry reported that some “sensitive” information may have been leaked as the result of the Mitsubishi breach.8 That same month, the ministry disclosed that Kobe Steel, NEC, and aerial surveying company Pasco were also targeted by cyberattacks between 2016 and 2018.9

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.10

In 2020, as Japanese companies shifted to telework during the pandemic, the number of ransomware attacks surged to unprecedented levels, shutting down operations and paralyzing computer and email systems. According to a survey conducted by international security firm CrowdStrike, a little more than half of the 200 largest Japanese companies, including Honda, Canon, Citizen Watch and Asunaro Aoki Construction, have been hit by ransomware cyberattacks, and 33 companies have paid an average of ¥123 million ($1.12 million) to criminal networks to prevent their password-protected data from leaks. In November 2020, Capcom, a prominent video game company, reported that it paid a ¥1.1 billion ($9.9 million) ransom in exchange for the recovery of stolen materials.11 The National Center for Global Health and Medicine (NCGHM) announced that it was the target of about 5.3 million ransomware attacks in 2020, compared to 1.2 million incidents in 2019, though they reported that sensitive research and personal information was not compromised during these attacks.12

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