Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) resigned in September 2008 after less than a year in office. He was considered a moderate who was willing to build consensus, but he had failed to engage the opposition constructively and suffered from low public approval ratings. Taro Aso, the LDP’s secretary general and a former foreign minister, was elected to replace Fukuda as prime minister and pledged to revive the economy.
Japan has operated as a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic monarchy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled almost continuously since 1955, having been in opposition for only 10 months in 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, the banks, and big-business representatives—was a key factor behind 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. Over time, companies engaged in politically expedient but financially unviable projects in order to reap government rewards. The iron triangle came to be cited as a major source of corruption in the government.
The economy ran into trouble in the early 1990s, following a collapse in the stock and real-estate markets. While the fallout was extensive, the economy began slowly returning to a healthy state in 2002. The profits of Japanese companies recovered, and the banking sector emerged from more than a decade of difficulties.
In 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took a major political gamble. After the upper house of the Diet failed to pass his bill to privatize the 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 produced a landslide victory, widely seen as a popular mandate to implement privatization reforms, that left the LDP with 296 of the 480 seats in the lower house. The allied New Komeito Party took 31 seats.
When Koizumi’s term as party leader expired in 2006, Shinzo Abe—whose grandfather had been commerce and industry minister during World War II and later served as prime minister—succeeded him. Abe had risen to prominence as a supporter of a popular movement to demand the return of Japanese citizens previously kidnapped by North Korea. His firm stance against North Korea was reinforced when the communist state tested missiles capable of reaching Japanese cities and later tested a nuclear weapon for the first time in 2006. The new prime minister 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 and objected to Koizumi’s annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine. The shrine honored both Japanese soldiers killed in World War II and senior figures who were convicted of war crimes.
Koizumi and Abe continued to expand Japan’s role in peacekeeping and security, although the military remained restricted by Article 9 of the country’s pacifist constitution. Since 1992, Japanese troops have participated in several UN peacekeeping missions, and Japanese warships and aircraft have provided logistical support to U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, Japan ended a two-year mission in Iraq in which 1,000 soldiers performed noncombat functions and supplied humanitarian aid. An airlift mission in the country was also phased out at the end of 2008.
Abe resigned in September 2007 after losing control of the upper house to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the July 2007 elections. The DPJ won 60 of the 121 seats at stake, for a new total of 109, while the LDP fell to a total of 83 and New Komeito sank to 20. Abe’s tenure had been marred by repeated scandals and political gaffes. Five of his ministers had resigned in disgrace, and his agriculture minister committed suicide following revelations about questionable office expenses. Abe himself got into trouble after claiming there was no evidence that the government had any role in the creation of Japan’s system of sexual slavery during World War II. Yasuo Fukuda, whose father had been prime minister in the 1970s, was elected to replace Abe by an overwhelming majority in the lower house. The 71-year-old was considered a moderate and a builder of consensus. However, after he failed to rally support and govern effectively, he too resigned abruptly in September 2008. Former foreign minister Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, succeeded Fukuda later that month. Aso supported revising the constitution’s Article 9 to simplify overseas military deployments. Despite ending its involvement in Iraq, Japan continued its refueling of American vessels in the Indian Ocean, but his government’s top priority was to rejuvenate the faltering economy, which remained burdened with a government debt equal to 182 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
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 Representatives—serves as head of government and appoints a cabinet of ministers. Members of the 480-seat House of Representatives serve four-year terms; 300 are elected in single-member constituencies and 180 are elected by party list in 11 regional districts. An upper chamber, the House of Councilors, consists of 146 members elected in multiseat constituencies and 96 elected by national party list; members serve six-year terms, with half facing election every three years. Emperor Akihito serves as the ceremonial head of state.
Several political parties compete for power. Currently, the LDP leads a coalition government with New Komeito, a small party with close ties to a national Buddhist organization. Ichiro Ozawa heads the opposition DPJ, which took control of the upper house in July 2007 elections. Other opposition parties include the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. The DJP has called for early general elections to oust the troubled LDP-led government.
Until leaving office in 2006, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi focused his 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 18 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. 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 environmentalist 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. Prison conditions comply with international standards, although 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. A new Penal Facilities and Treatment of Prisoners Law was adopted in 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. While arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are not practiced, there is potential for abuse due to a law that allows the police to detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge in order to extract confessions.
Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status, certain groups 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 gaining equal access to housing and employment opportunities. Foreigners generally, and Koreans in particular, suffer similar disadvantages.
Women in Japan have legal equality, but discrimination in employment is particularly widespread. In addition, sexual harassment on the job is common. Violence against women is a problem that often goes unreported because of concerns about family reputation and other social mores. While prostitution remains illegal, it is widespread. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, Japan is primarily a destination country for people trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. The issue of World War II–era sex slaves, known as comfort women, stirred controversy in 2007 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Japan to accept responsibility and provide compensation. The Japanese courts contend that compensation claims were settled by postwar treaties.