Freedom in the World
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The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main opposition party, was the best performer in the elections to the upper house of the Diet (parliament) held in July 2004. The result indicated general public dissatisfaction with the vaguely defined reformist agenda of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi - and, in particular, with necessary but very unpopular reforms to the pension sector.
Japan has been a parliamentary democracy since its defeat in World War II. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated postwar Japanese politics, winning all but one election since it was created in 1955. During the Cold War, the LDP presided over Japan's spectacular economic ascent while maintaining close security ties with the United States. In what became known as Japan's Iron Triangle - the close nexus of the LDP, banks, and big business representatives - LDP governments more or less mandated that corporations, particularly construction firms in charge of major public works projects - rely on banks for capital, and the banks in turn took large equity stakes in the companies. All the while, the government maintained centralized control through its influence over the banking sector and its ability to direct lending - often to debt-laden companies engaged in politically expedient but financially unviable projects.
Current economic woes stem from the collapse of Japan's stock and real estate markets in the early 1990s. The crash saddled Japanese banks with tens of billions of dollars worth of problem loans, and successive LDP-led governments in the 1990s have largely failed to contain the fallout.
Under a turnout of less than 60 percent, the LDP won 237 seats in the 480-seat house in the November 9, 2003 snap elections for the lower house. After the vote, it gained a simple majority by welcoming three independents into its ranks and merging with the tiny New Conservative Party, which won four seats. The DPJ gained 40 seats to finish with 177. This was the largest tally for any opposition party since 1958, though changes in the size and electoral structure of parliament make comparisons difficult. Most of the DPJ's gains came at the expense of smaller, leftist parties rather than the LDP. The LDP's victory was helped by Koizumi's high personal popularity among Japanese voters.
The DPJ won 50 seats - a gain of 12 seats - out of the 121 being contested in the upper house of parliament in elections in July 2004. The LDP won 49, two seats short of its target of 51 seats. Nevertheless, the LDP's grip on power was not going to be threatened regardless of the outcome. The DPJ's strong performance reflected the voting public's displeasure with the government, and primarily with its controversial pension reform bill, which would reduce benefits and increase premiums paid by workers. Public sentiment against the reform program ran particularly high since the elections were held shortly after it had come to light that several senior officials had been shirking their own payments into the national pension system.
Under Koizumi, Japan has continued to expand its role in international peacekeeping and security. Japanese troops have participated in several UN peacekeeping missions since 1992, Japanese warships provided logistical support to U.S.-led forces during the war in Afghanistan, and in 2003 parliament approved the dispatch of 1,000 troops to Iraq to provide logistical support to U.S.-led troops and humanitarian aid. The ongoing crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program has increased debate about the need to boost the capacity of Japan's already formidable military, which is limited to a self-defense role by the country's pacifist constitution.
Japan's relations with its neighbors, while generally stable, are marked by periodic tensions. China and South Korea both object to Koizumi's continued visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japan's war dead - including its war criminals - and which the two nations see as symbolizing Japan's historical militarism. In 2004, Japan made stronger efforts to engage North Korea, both to improve relations between the two countries and to persuade North Korea to participate in multiparty talks about its nuclear capabilities.
Japanese citizens change their government through free and fair elections. As in other parliamentary systems of government, the prime minister heads a cabinet of ministers. The Emperor is head of state, but has only a ceremonial role. There are numerous political parties, and the current government is a coalition of the leading LDP and the smaller New Komeito party.
Despite recent reforms aimed at curbing the power of the bureaucracy, senior civil servants, rather than elected politicians, largely shape policy, generally with little transparency. Japan was ranked 24 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index - the country's its best ranking in years. Corruption most often takes the form of bribery or bid-rigging in the country's numerous large public works projects.
Japan's press is free and independent, though not always outspoken. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 26th (tied with Austria and South Africa) out of 139 countries in its index of press freedom. The press operates independently of the government, and censorship is not a concern. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation operates broadcast media, which comprises hundreds of television and radio broadcasters as well as numerous foreign, cable and satellite broadcasters. Homogeneity, especially in political news, is facilitated in part by a system of press clubs, or kisha kurabu, in which major media outlets have cozy relationships with bureaucrats and politicians.
Japanese of all faiths can worship freely, though Buddhism and Shintoism have the most followers. Religious groups are not required to be licensed, but registering with government authorities as a "religious corporation" brings tax benefits and other advantages.
There are no restrictions on academic freedom, though China, South Korea, and other countries in the region frequently lodge protests against passages in Japanese history textbooks that try to justify the country's occupation of other Asian nations before and during World War II and downplay the imperial army's wartime atrocities in occupied lands.
Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed by the constitution and protected in practice. Japan has many well-funded and active civic, human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. Trade unions are independent and vigorously promote workers' interests. Only some public employees, such as police and firefighters, are not allowed to form unions or strike. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation is the largest labor organization, representing some 6.8 million workers. Collective bargaining is widespread.
Japan's judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects are generally given fair public trials by an impartial tribunal (there are no juries) within three months of being detained. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are not practiced. Prison conditions comply with international standards, although some human rights groups have criticized them for being overly disciplined. Prison officials sometimes use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions. The government restricts human rights groups' access to prisons. In November 2004, the Ministry of Justice reported that the number of prisoners in Japan topped 60,000 for the first time in 43 years. The National Police Agency is under civilian control and is highly disciplined, though reports of human rights abuses committed by police persist.
Japan's organized crime network, the Yakuza, is one of the largest in the world, and is closely linked with drug-trafficking, prostitution, gambling and money laundering. Though the Yakuza were active in buying land and stock shares in the 1990s, today they are broadly tolerated by both the police and the public, and have a negligible effect on business activity or personal freedom. The government took a somewhat tougher stance in 2004, however: in April, the National Police Agency established a department in charge of organized crime in the Criminal Investigation Bureau, and in October, it compiled a comprehensive manual to guide police nationwide in dealing with organized crime.
Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, and social status, certain groups of people continue to face unofficial discrimination. Japan's three million Burakumin, who are descendants of feudal-era outcasts, and the indigenous Ainu minority suffer from entrenched societal discrimination that prevents them from having equal access to housing and employment opportunities. Foreigners generally, and Koreans in particular, suffer the same disadvantage.
Privacy rights are respected in Japan, and there are no restrictions on travel within the country or abroad.
Women have full access to education but face employment discrimination. In addition, sexual harassment on the job is widespread. Violence against women is a problem that often goes unreported because of "social and cultural concerns about shaming one's family or endangering the reputation of one's spouse or children," according the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report, released in February 2004. The trafficking of persons is not specifically forbidden by law.