Japan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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The 2009 election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ended more than five decades of nearly continuous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule. Although the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, promised numerous domestic and foreign policy reforms, difficult economic conditions and tenuous party unity pose a serious challenge to the implementation of these policies.  

Japan has operated as a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic monarchy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled almost continuously since 1955, 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 slowly returned to a healthy state in 2002.
In 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took a major political gamble. After the legislature’s upper house failed to pass his bill to privatize the postal system, he called snap elections hoping to remove LDP members that opposed his reform policies. Koizumi’s gamble succeeded by giving him 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.
When Koizumi’s term as party leader ended in 2006, Shinzo Abe—who had risen to prominence as a strong advocate of a popular movement to demand the return of Japanese citizens previously kidnapped by North Korea—succeeded him. Abe’s tenure, however, was soon 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. Abe eventually 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 seats.
Yasuo Fukuda succeeded Abe as the head of the LDP and prime minister. Although the 71-year-old was considered a moderate and a consensus builder, like his predecessor, he lacked Koizumi’s charisma and leadership. After Fukuda failed to rally support and govern effectively, he resigned in September 2008. Former foreign minister Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, succeeded him later that month. The Aso government focused on rejuvenating the faltering economy, which remained burdened with a government debt equal to almost 200 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

After repeated failed leaderships and growing public disillusionment, the LDP’s nearly 55-year dominance in the lower house ended when the DPJ captured 308 seats in the August 30, 2009 elections. The DPJ formed a coalition with two smaller parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, and DPJ party leader Yukio Hatayama was selected to be the new prime minister. The DPJ’s center-left platform, which challenged many of the LDP’s long-standing policies, included greater independence from U.S. influence, improved relations with neighboring Asian countries, greater rights to traditionally marginalized groups (such women and ethnic minorities), and a more decentralized and accountable government concerned with social welfare and environmental issues. While many regard the DPJ’s victory as an opportunity to enact various reforms and create a genuine two-party system in Japan, ongoing domestic economic problems and the DPJ’s lack of party unity cast serious doubts on this prospect.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Japan is an electoral democracy. The prime minister—the leader of the majority party or coalition in the bicameral legislature’s (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.
Although several political parties compete for power, the center-right LDP dominated for almost 55 years. The DPJ’s victory in the August 2009 elections to the House of Representatives opened the way for the development of a two-party system. Other minor opposition parties include the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.
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. Although Japan is a signatory of the U.N. Convention against Corruption, the Diet has not yet ratified it into law. Japan was ranked 18 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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 freedoms 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. 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. 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 2006 Penal Facilities and Treatment of Prisoners Law provides for a monitoring body to inspect prisons, improved access to the outside world for prisoners, and human rights education for prison staff.
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.

Although women in Japan enjoy legal equality, discrimination in employment and sexual harassment on the job are common. Violence against women 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 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report, Japan is primarily a destination country for people trafficked for forced labor and 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.