Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s term of office expired in 2006. Because the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) retained control of the Diet (parliament), the selection process for a successor took place within the various factions of the LDP. Shinzo Abe, a scion of a high-ranking political family, was selected. He immediately moved to repair relations with China and South Korea, both of which had refused to meet with Koizumi because of his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine honoring Japanese soldiers killed in World War II, including several convicted war criminals. However, nationalism may continue to grow under Abe’s leadership, as he has long supported altering Japan’s “pacifist” constitution and revising school textbooks to reflect greater patriotism.
Japan has operated as a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power almost continuously since 1955, having been out of power for only 10 months during the past 50 years. The LDP presided over Japan’s economic ascent while maintaining close security ties with the United States during the Cold War. The so-called iron triangle—the close relationship between the LDP, banks, and big business representatives—was a major source of Japan’s economic success. The LDP government mandated that corporations, specifically 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. The government was able to maintain centralized control of this operation through its influence over the banking sector. One negative result of the arrangement was that companies in debt would engage in politically expedient but financially unviable projects in order to reap governmental rewards. The iron triangle is often cited as a major source of corruption in the Japanese government, but analysts have noted that the efforts of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down in 2006, alleviated the problem to some extent.
The Japanese economy ran into trouble in the early 1990s, following a crash in the stock and real-estate markets. While the fallout from this “burst bubble” was extensive, the economy has been slowly returning to a healthy state since 2002. The profits of Japanese companies have been growing, and the banking sector, which played a role in the economy’s stagnation, is in better shape now than it has been in over a decade. Furthermore, there has been job recovery; full-time employment rose dramatically in 2005. Economic recovery continued throughout 2006.
In 2005, Koizumi took a major political gamble. After the upper house of the Diet failed to pass his bill to privatize the Japanese postal system, which contained a massive, state-subsidized savings bank and life-insurance enterprise, he dissolved the lower house and called snap elections. Koizumi then barred LDP members who voted against his reform bill from participating in the elections as party candidates. His political brinkmanship proved a tremendous success when the LDP won a landslide victory, widely seen as a popular mandate to implement privatization reforms.
The LDP, in coalition with minor parties, firmly controlled the Diet. When Koizumi’s term as party leader expired in 2006, the LDP was able to select a successor from within its various factions. Shinzo Abe, the son and grandson of high-ranking Japanese politicians (his grandfather had been commerce and industry minister during World War II and later served as prime minister), had risen to political prominence as a supporter of a popular movement to demand the return of Japanese citizens previously kidnapped by North Korea. Immediately on becoming prime minister, Abe traveled to China and South Korea to repair relations with those countries, which had opposed Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Chinese and South Korean leaders had also refused to meet with Koizumi because of his annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, which honored Japanese soldiers killed in World War II, including a number of convicted war criminals.
Japan has continued to expand its role in peacekeeping and security, although its military is restricted, by Article 9 of the country’s pacifist constitution, to a self-defense role. The debate over whether to amend Article 9 is ongoing. Since 1992, Japanese troops have participated in several UN peacekeeping missions. Japanese warships also provided logistical support to U.S.-led forces during the war in Afghanistan, and in 2003, the Diet approved the dispatch of 1,000 troops to Iraq to assist the U.S.-led effort there by performing noncombat functions and supplying humanitarian aid.
Disputes over Japanese nationalism may reemerge in the near future. Abe has previously questioned the legitimacy of the U.S.-organized post–World War II criminal tribunals. He has expressed support for revising the constitution, and he has argued for altering school textbooks to express a more patriotic position on various historical issues, a matter followed very closely in China and Korea. In 2006, after North Korea tested missiles capable of reaching Japanese cities and later tested a nuclear weapon for the first time, Japan reacted strongly, joining the United States in imposing sanctions and embargoes on North Korea. Prominent Japanese politicians called for a public debate on whether the country should continue to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its security, or whether, in light of North Korea’s nuclear test, Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons capacity. For the time being, Abe ruled out that option and discouraged any further debate.
Japan is an electoral democracy. The prime minister—the leader of the majority party or coalition in the Diet’s lower chamber, the House of Deputies—is the head of government and appoints a cabinet of ministers. The House of Deputies ( Shugi-in ) serves four-year terms and is made up of 380 single-member constituency seats and 100 party-block seats. An upper chamber, the House of Councilors ( Sangi-in ), consists of 146 constituency seats and 96 party-block seats; members serve six-year terms, with half facing election every three years. Emperor Akihito serves as a ceremonial head of state.
Numerous political parties compete for power. Currently, the LDP leads a coalition government with New Komeito, a party with close ties to a national Buddhist organization. Major opposition parties include the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party.
Until leaving office in 2006, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi focused his major reform efforts on breaking down the corruption that resulted from the iron triangle system, mostly by loosening ties between the government and big business. Japan was ranked 17 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Japan’s press is private and independent, but the presence of press clubs, or kisha kurabu, is an obstacle to press freedom. Press clubs ensure homogeneity of news coverage by fostering close relationships between the major media and bureaucrats and politicians. Government officials often give club members exclusive access to political information, leading journalists to avoid writing critical stories about the government and reducing the media’s ability to pressure politicians for greater transparency and accountability. These practices have been criticized by press freedom advocates and the European Union. Reporters outside the press club system conduct most of Japan’s investigative journalism. Internet access is not restricted.
Japanese of all faiths can worship freely. 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.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and association. The political culture in Japan is strong, and there are active civic, human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. Trade unions are independent, and with the exception of police and firefighters, all unionized workers have the right to strike.
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 have been known to use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions. The government sometimes restricts human rights groups’ access to prisons. According to Amnesty International, a new Penal Facilities and Treatment of Prisoners Law was adopted in May 2006, replacing the 1908 law. It provides for a monitoring body to inspect prisons, improved access to the outside world for prisoners, and human rights education for prison staff. The National Police Agency is under civilian control and is highly disciplined, though reports of human rights abuses committed by police persist. The Diet debated but did not yet decide to establish a national human rights commission. The government has announced that it would accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and seek the election of a Japanese judge to the body.
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 disadvantages.
Women in Japan have legal equality, but discrimination in employment is particularly widespread. According to The Times (London), “Only one in eight lawyers is a woman, as is one in ten company managers, one in thirty ambassadors and one in seventy senior civil servants.” In addition, sexual harassment on the job is common. 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 a U.S. State Department human rights report. The snap elections in September 2005 proved to be a major step forward for women in Japanese politics; 43 women were elected to the 480-member lower house, the highest number ever. This was the result of Koizumi’s decision to invite an unprecedented number of women to run in the place of the ejected members of the LDP. Many of the women were awarded top spots on the party’s list of candidates.
Survivors of Japan’s system of sexual slavery during World War II, popularly known as “Comfort Women,” continued to be denied legal remedy or reparations for their treatment. The Japanese courts contend that compensation claims were settled by postwar treaties.