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.
- In August, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that he would step down for health reasons. The ruling LDP held a party caucus in September and chose Yoshihide Suga as its new leader; Suga took office as prime minister two days later.
- It was reported in October that the prime minister’s office had refused to confirm the nominations of six professors to the Science Council of Japan, an independent science advisory panel, raising concerns about academic freedom.
- The first case of COVID-19 in Japan was confirmed in January. Case counts declined after a first peak in April, rose again for a period in late July and early August, and surged for a third time in November and December. By year’s end the cumulative number of cases was more than 240,000, and more than 3,500 deaths had been reported. The government declared a state of emergency from April to late May, but the move did not give it the authority to enforce lockdowns or restrict movement within the country. The Olympic Games, originally scheduled to take place in July and August, were postponed until 2021 as a result of the pandemic.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The prime minister is the head of government and is chosen by the freely elected parliament. The prime minister selects the cabinet, which can include a limited number of ministers who are not members of the parliament. Japan’s emperor serves as head of state in a ceremonial capacity.
Shinzō Abe, who had become the country’s longest-serving prime minister since taking office for a second time in 2012, announced in August 2020 that he would step down for health reasons. The LDP chose Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as its new leader at a party caucus in September, and the parliament voted to confirm him as prime minister two days later.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The parliament, or Diet, has two chambers. The more powerful lower house, the House of Representatives, has 465 members elected to maximum four-year terms through a mixture of single-member districts and proportional representation. The upper house, the House of Councillors, has 245 members serving fixed six-year terms, with half elected every three years using a mixture of nationwide proportional representation and prefecture-based voting. The prime minister and his cabinet can dissolve the lower house, but not the upper house. The lower house can also pass a no-confidence resolution that forces the cabinet to either resign or dissolve the lower house.
Legislative elections in Japan are free and fair. In the most recent lower house elections, held in 2017, the LDP won 284 seats, and an allied party, Komeito, took 29. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) won 55, the Party of Hope secured 50, and smaller parties and independents captured the remainder. In July 2019 elections for the upper house, the LDP-led coalition retained 71 seats out of the 124 contested, giving it a comfortable majority of 141 seats in the chamber, although it fell short of the two-thirds supermajority required to revise the constitution. The CDP won 17 seats, and other seats went to smaller parties and independents.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Japan’s electoral laws are generally fair and well enforced. Campaigning is heavily regulated, which typically benefits incumbents, although the rules are applied equally to all candidates. In June 2020, a former justice minister and his wife, an LDP lawmaker, were arrested on suspicion of violating the election law by handing out cash to politicians and supporters; they were indicted the following month.
Malapportionment in favor of the rural districts from which the LDP draws significant support has been a persistent problem, despite a series of reforms to reduce the disparity with urban districts. A November 2020 Supreme Court ruling upheld the constitutionality of the most recent upper house elections, but called on lawmakers to address the remaining gap in voting power between the most and least populated constituencies.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Parties generally do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation. In August 2020, two opposition parties—the CDP and the Democratic Party for the People—agreed to merge in an attempt to form a united front against the ruling LDP. Some new parties gained seats in the 2019 upper house elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
While the LDP has governed for most of Japan’s postwar history, there have been democratic transfers of power to and from alternative parties. Opposition parties are represented in the parliament and govern at the subnational level.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from improper interference by powerful interests that are not democratically accountable.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens enjoy equal rights to vote and run in elections regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Women remain underrepresented in government. There were no women contenders in the September 2020 contest to select a new LDP president, with male-led factions appearing to hinder their rise. A nonbinding 2018 gender parity law urges parties to nominate equal numbers of male and female candidates. In the 2019 upper house elections, 28.1 percent of all candidates and 22.6 of winning candidates were women, both record highs in Japan.
Around 600,000 ethnic Koreans born in Japan hold special residency privileges but not Japanese citizenship, meaning they are ineligible to participate in any elections at the national and local levels. Most but not all are South Korean nationals, and they have the option of applying for Japanese citizenship.
The Ainu, an Indigenous people numbering at least 20,000, live mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The Ainu Party was launched in 2012 to increase their political representation, though it has yet to win seats in the Diet.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Elected officials are free to govern without interference, though senior civil servants have some influence over policy.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
The prevalence of corruption in government is relatively low, media coverage of political corruption scandals is widespread and vigorous, and officials who are implicated face criminal prosecution. For instance, in December 2019, an LDP incumbent in the lower house was indicted on charges of taking bribes from a Chinese company. He was arrested again in August 2020 on charges of offering witnesses money in exchange for falsely testifying in court. Separately, it was reported in December 2020 that two former agriculture ministers had taken bribes from a food company.
Some government officials have close relations with business leaders, and retiring bureaucrats often quickly secure high-paying positions with companies that receive significant government contracts.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally operates with openness and transparency. Access to information legislation allows individuals to request information from government agencies, though in practice the law has not always been implemented effectively. Government officials have at times withheld information from lawmakers and the public in connection with political scandals. In December 2020, prosecutors charged one of Abe’s aides with failing to report financial details related to annual banquets for the former prime minister’s political supporters that allegedly violated campaign spending laws. Both Abe and Suga publicly apologized for making false statements in connection with the case.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution, and Japan has a highly competitive media sector. However, press freedom advocates have expressed concern about a 2014 law that allows journalists to be prosecuted for revealing state secrets, even if the information was unknowingly obtained. A 2017 report by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression noted concern about pressure on the media from the government, and recommended the repeal of Article 4 of the Broadcast Act, which gives the government the power to determine what information is “fair” and thus acceptable for public broadcast.
Under the traditional kisha kurabu (press club) system, institutions such as government ministries and corporate organizations have restricted the release of news to journalists and media outlets with membership in their clubs. In 2020, in order to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cabinet Office limited access to its briefings for freelancers and foreign correspondents, while guaranteeing access for members of the cabinet press club. While the club system has been criticized for privileging the major dailies and other established outlets that belong to it and potentially encouraging self-censorship, in recent years online media and weekly newsmagazines have challenged the daily papers’ dominance of political news with more aggressive reporting.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and there are no substantial barriers to religious expression or the expression of nonbelief.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and mostly respected in practice, but education and textbooks have long been a focus of public and political debate. While there is not a national curriculum or single official history text, the Ministry of Education’s screening process has approved textbooks that downplay Japan’s history of imperialism and war atrocities.
In October 2020, it was reported that the prime minister’s office had refused to confirm the nomination of six professors to the Science Council of Japan, an independent advisory panel. The nominees had opposed government-backed security legislation, and human rights activists argued that the unusual move to reject them raised concerns about academic freedom.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally does not restrict personal expression or private discussion. Some observers have raised concerns that antiterrorism and anticonspiracy legislation that went into effect in 2017 could permit undue surveillance.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is protected under the constitution, and peaceful demonstrations take place frequently. In 2020, protests were held on topics including opposition to proceeding with the Olympic Games in 2021, racial discrimination and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, human rights violations by the Chinese government, and the controversy surrounding nominations to the Science Council of Japan.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are generally free from undue restrictions and remained diverse and active in 2020.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Most workers have the legal right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. However, public-sector workers are barred from striking, and some, such as firefighters and prison staff, cannot form unions. Labor unions are active and exert political influence through the Japanese Trade Union Confederation and other groupings.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
Japan’s judiciary is independent. For serious criminal cases, a judicial panel composed of professional judges and saiban-in (lay judges), selected from the general public, render verdicts.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
Constitutional guarantees of due process are generally upheld. However, observers have argued that trials often favor the prosecution. There are reports that suspects have been detained on flimsy evidence, arrested multiple times for the same alleged crime, or subjected to lengthy interrogations that yield what amount to forced confessions. Police can detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge. Access to those in pretrial detention is sometimes limited.
New legislation adopted in 2017 added nearly 300 categories of conspiracy offenses to the criminal code in order to help unravel terrorist plots and organized crime networks. Critics of the changes raised concerns that they gave the government too much authority to restrict civil liberties.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
People in Japan are generally protected from the illegitimate use of physical force and the threat of war and insurgencies. Violent crime rates are low. However, organized crime is fairly prominent, particularly in the construction and nightlife sectors; crime groups also run drug-trafficking and loansharking operations.
No executions were carried out in 2020, marking the first such year since 2011. Prisoners facing death sentences or accused of crimes that could carry the death penalty are held in solitary confinement, sometimes for years at a time. There are frequent reports of substandard medical care in prisons. Human Rights Watch in April 2020 called for a reduction in the population of detention facilities in Japan, arguing that COVID-19 prevention and treatment measures in the prison system were inadequate.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Societal discrimination against various minority groups has generally declined over time, but it can affect access to housing and employment.
A law adopted in 2016 was intended to eliminate discrimination against Japan’s estimated three million burakumin—descendants of feudal-era outcasts. The law obliges national and local governments to provide advice, support, and education on the issue, but it does not assign penalties for acts of discrimination.
A 2019 law officially recognized the Ainu as an Indigenous people of Japan, though critics noted that it failed to offer an apology for past mistreatment.
Japan-born descendants of colonial subjects (particularly ethnic Koreans and Chinese) also experience discrimination. A 2016 hate speech law calls on the government to take steps to eliminate discriminatory speech against ethnic minorities, but it does not carry any penalties for perpetrators.
LGBT+ people face social stigma and in some cases harassment. There is no national law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2016, sexual harassment regulations for national public officials were modified to prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Employment discrimination and sexual harassment against women are common.
Asylum is granted to less than 1 percent of those who apply each year under Japan’s strict screening process, and very few refugees are accepted for third-country resettlement in Japan.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
There are few significant restrictions on internal or international travel, or on individuals’ ability to change their place of residence, employment, and education.
The government was criticized for its restrictions on entry for foreign travelers during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the limits applied even to permanent residents seeking reentry; the rules were eased for residents in September 2020. Internal travel was discouraged, but the government had no legal authority to impose lockdowns.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Property rights are generally respected. People are free to establish private businesses, although Japan’s economy is heavily regulated.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
While personal social freedoms are mostly protected, there are some limitations. The country’s system of family registration, koseki, recognizes people as members of a family unit and requires married couples to share a surname, which usually defaults to the husband’s last name. This can create legal complications for women as well as children born out of wedlock or to divorced parents, among others.
There is no legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Japan, though some municipal and prefectural governments have passed local legislation allowing the registration of same-sex partnerships.
Domestic violence is punishable by law, and protective orders and other services are available for victims, but such abuse often goes unreported.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals generally enjoy equality of opportunity, and the legal framework provides safeguards against exploitative working conditions. However, long workdays are common in practice and have been criticized as harmful to workers’ health.
Many workers are temporary or contract employees with substantially lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security than regular employees.
Commercial sexual exploitation remains a problem. Traffickers frequently bring foreign women into the country for forced sex work by arranging fraudulent marriages with Japanese men.
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Global Freedom Score96 100 free
Internet Freedom Score75 100 free