Japan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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In the midst of a faltering economy, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011 that caused widespread devastation and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Criticism of the government’s response to the disaster led to the resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his replacement in August by Yoshihiko Noda. Antinuclear power rallies and efforts to rebuild the affected areas and to support the hundreds of thousands displaced by the disasters continued throughout the year.

Japan has operated as a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic monarchy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (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 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, and the iron triangle became 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, but slowly recovered in 2002.

Shinzo Abe became prime minister in 2006, though his tenure was marred by repeated scandals and political gaffes. Abe stepped down in September 2007 after the LDP lost control of the legislature’s upper chamber in the July elections to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Yasuo Fukuda, who succeeded Abe, failed to rally support and govern effectively, and 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.

The LDP’s nearly 55-year dominance in the legislature’s lower chamber ended when the DPJ captured 308 seats in the August 2009 elections, and Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister. The DPJ’s platform challenged many of the LDP’s long-standing policies, including greater independence from U.S. influence, improved relations with neighboring Asian countries, and a more decentralized and accountable government concerned with social welfare and environmental issues. However, confronted with an economic recession and increased regional tensions, Hatoyama shifted his foreign policy focus back to the United States for security guarantees. The prime minister also failed to implement a number of his campaign promises, including closing the controversial U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa. Hatoyama announced his resignation in June 2010, partly due to a financial scandal involving DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa.

On June 4, Finance Minister Naoto Kan was chosen prime minister, though his approval ratings plummeted after he proposed raising the country’s sales tax from 5 percent to 10 percent. Following this unpopular move, the DPJ captured only 44 of the 121 seats at stake in the July elections to the legislature’s upper chamber, while a coalition of the LDP and two smaller parties took 61 seats. Kan continued to face significant domestic and international challenges, including continued inflation, a faltering economy, and diplomatic disputes with China and Russia.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a 9.0 earthquake just off the east coast of Tohoku, which triggered a subsequent tsunami. The majority of buildings and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed, and there was a massive toll on human lives. The National Policy Agency of Japan has reported that the known death toll for the earthquake and tsunami is just over 18,000, though the real toll may never be known. The overall costs of the earthquake are estimated at over $300 billion. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant also suffered severe damage; reactor cooling systems were debilitated, triggering nuclear meltdown. Widespread radioactive contamination led to an evacuation of the surrounding area, displacing several hundred thousand residents. 

Amid plunging approval ratings over the government’s handling of the crises, Kan resigned in August, and Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda was elected in DPJ preliminary elections that same month to succeed Kan. Noda will serve as prime minister for the duration of Kan’s regular term, until fall 2012, when regular DPJ presidential elections will be held.

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. 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. The 242-seat upper chamber, the House of Councillors, 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.

Significant reform efforts have focused on battling corruption stemming 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. In January 2011, Ichiro Ozawa, the LDP candidate who lost to Naoto Kan in the 2010 elections, and three of his aides were indicted for under-reporting income and violating campaign finance laws. The case went to trial in October and was expected to last through March 2012. In March, Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned after admitting he accepted a political donation from a foreign national, also violating campaign finance laws. Japan was ranked 14 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Japan’s press is private and independent, but the presence of press clubs, or kisha kurabu, even under the more liberal DPJ, continues to be 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. 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, and there are active human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. After the Fukushima nuclear crisis, several antinuclear power rallies were held in Tokyo. The largest demonstration took place on September 19, with more than 20,000 people calling for the immediate closure of Japan’s nuclear reactors and for the creation of a new energy policy centered on renewable energy sources. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda responded by acknowledging the need for greater safety standards and a long-term goal to reduce dependency on nuclear energy. In November, Japanese farmers led rallies opposing Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, concerned about potential effects on their livelihoods. Trade unions are independent, and with the exception of public sector employees, 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 within three months of being detained. In 2009, a new saiban-in (lay judge) system was instituted for serious criminal cases. The judicial panel is composed of a mix of saiban-in selected from the general public and professional judges, who together determine the guilt and/or sentence of the defendants. The Justice Ministry is scheduled to conduct a full evaluation of the saiban-in system in 2012. 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, though prison officials have been known to use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status. However, Japan’s estimated three million burakumin—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. Foreign-born populations, 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 due to concerns about family reputation and other social mores. Japanese courts continue to hold a no-compensation policy towards comfort women—World War II–era sex slaves—despite international pressure to provide reparations. Japan is a destination, source, and transit country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation.