Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Battles with fiscal hawks in the Ministry of Finance and inside his own party led Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to dissolve the House of Representatives (HOR) and call for a controversial snap election in December 2014, two years ahead of schedule. Although his conservative coalition rewon its two-thirds majority and Abe was reelected, many analysts agree that structural reform under the prime minister’s economic policy of “Abenomics” and legislation to implement an expanded role for Japan’s self-defense forces could bog down the government in 2015.
Security policy changes proposed in July 2014 allow for the expansion of Japan’s military reach, including previously restricted logistical support for U.S. forces engaged in military operations. This reinterpretation of Japan’s post–World War II constitution led to large protests in the country.
Political Rights: 39 / 40 (+2) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
Japan is a constitutional monarchy headed by the emperor of Japan, a ceremonial head of state who exercises diplomatic duties. Japan has a bicameral national legislature, the Diet. The lower house, or HOR, is made up of 480 members, each elected to a four-year term. The upper house, the House of Councillors (HOC), is comprised of 242 members who serve six-year terms, half of whom are up for election every three years.
The HOR is considered the more powerful of the two houses. It elects the prime minister, passes the budget and treaties, and holds the power to veto legislation passed by the HOC with a two-thirds majority. The HOR can be dissolved by the prime minister and his cabinet, as Abe did in November 2014. Postelection, the cabinet is also dissolved, and the HOR is charged with reappointing the prime minister, who, in turn, creates a new cabinet. HOC opposition has successfully curtailed HOR legislation in recent years, resulting in legislative stagnation and short-lived cabinets. The HOR can also pass a no-confidence resolution forcing the resignation of the cabinet.
Elections in Japan are free and fair. In 2013 elections for half of the HOC, the LDP captured control of the upper house, taking 65 of the 121 seats at stake for a new total of 135. Its coalition partner, New Kōmeitō (now Kōmeitō), won 11 seats for a total of 20. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), took only 17 seats, leaving it with 59 of its previous 86 total. Five smaller parties and two independents also won seats.
Prime Minister Abe called for a controversial snap election of the HOR in December 2014. The LDP lost 3 seats but retained its two-thirds majority with a total 291 seats. Abe was reelected. The DJP won 73 seats, the newly formed Japan Innovation Party took 41 seats, LDP ally Kōmeitō won 35, the Japanese Communist Party secured 21, and the remaining seats were divided among smaller parties.
Many Japanese viewed the snap election as unnecessary and voter turnout reached a record low of 53 percent. Political observers largely considered the elections as an effort by Abe to renew the mandate for his increasingly unpopular economic reform policies, Abenomics, as well as to secure the next four years of power for the LDP.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
The LDP is a broad party whose members share a commitment to economic growth and free trade, but whose other political beliefs span from center to the far right. It has dominated Japanese politics since its creation in 1955, with the exception of two brief periods in 1993–94 and 2009–12. The second strongest party has been the centrist DPJ, which is largely defined by its opposition to the status quo and the entrenched LDP.
Japan has several other dynamic and durable political parties with seats in parliament: the Japan Innovation Party, a 2014 merger of the Japan Restoration Party and the Unity Party; Kōmeitō or Clean Government Party, which began as the political extension of a lay Buddhist movement and has been in coalition with the LDP since 1999; the Japanese Communist Party; the socially conservative Party for Future Generations (formed in 2014); the Social Democratic Party of Japan; and the environmental grassroots People’s Life Party & Tarō Yamamoto and Friends.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12 (+2)
Japanese bureaucrats have a strong degree of control over policy and use interministerial rivalries to manipulate political agendas.
Japan has a very low level of corruption in government as a whole. Previous corrupt practices in campaign finance, particularly in connection to the construction industry, and political intervention in public works spending have been reduced through increased scrutiny, strict punishment of violators, and changes in intraparty factional dynamics and interparty relations. Petty bribery is very rare. Japan was ranked 15 out of 175 countries and territories in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government in place in 2014 emphasized clear communication and transparency. The cabinet’s decision to begin note taking at cabinet meetings and to release summaries within three weeks, while short of the full degree of openness demanded by advocates of transparent governance, marks a significant step toward greater accountability. In addition, the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets passed in late 2013 allows for nonclassified information to be automatically shared with the public.
Civil Liberties: 55 / 60 (+2)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16 (+1)
Japan has a free and highly competitive media landscape. Under the traditional kisha (reporters’) club system, institutions such as government ministries and corporate organizations restricted the release of news to those journalists and media outlets with membership in their club. This allowed sources to control which news outlets received information, limiting access by foreign and independent media. The effect was homogenization and dilution of coverage. In recent years, online media and weekly news magazines have begun challenging the daily papers’ dominance of political reporting to reveal inside information.
The 2013 passage of the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets enacted strict punishments for leaking classified information and was highly unpopular with the media. However, it does not seem to have had any chilling effect on the media in general. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is mandated in Japan’s constitution, and there are no substantial barriers to religious expression. Aside from the traditional religions of Buddhism and Shintoism, Japan is home to a small Christian minority, and is increasingly supportive of its Muslim community.
There are no restrictions on academic freedom in Japan, but education has long been a politically contested area and the focus of public debate and careful attention from civil society. Japan has no national curriculum or single official textbook, but the Ministry of Education’s screening process has approved textbooks that whitewash Japan’s history of imperialism and war atrocities, leading to controversy at home and abroad. The educational conservativism of the LDP and the Ministry of Education often clashes with the more left-leaning teachers’ union. At the university level, there is wide diversity of views among faculty and active academic debate on a broad range of issues. Historical education about Japan’s World War II practice of “comfort women”—variously called simple prostitution or sexual slavery—is a major focus of domestic debate, both at the secondary (because of the approval of a textbook manuscript that omits any mention) and the university levels.
Articles in the Asahi Shimbun, a major newspaper, dating from the early 1990s were retracted in 2014, and the author of those articles, now a university lecturer, was the target of a campaign by rightwing activists. Their demands that his contract not be renewed because falsehoods in his reporting had damaged the image of Japan generated strong pressure on the university administration. However, a transnational countercampaign centering on the issue of academic freedom prevailed and the contract was renewed.
The government does not restrict private discussion.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12
Freedom of assembly is protected under the constitution. Protests, large and small, take place often, traditionally in the immediate area of the National Diet and the official residence of the prime minister. In June and July 2014, thousands protested the government’s reinterpretation of the constitution and the role of the national self-defense forces. There were at least two reports of self-immolation by protesters opposed to the new military policy.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are legally recognized and protected under the 1999 Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, and they continue to thrive. NGOs formed in the wake of the March 2011 “triple disaster” of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown have allowed civil society to actively engage in recovery efforts and in the debate over future policies.
Labor unions have a history in Japan since the end of World War II, and the movement remains active. However, as most private sector unions are small and company-specific, the labor movement has never achieved the full political weight of its nationwide membership.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
Japan’s judiciary is independent and fair, and the rule of law prevails. In practice, the courts limit involvement in what they designate as political matters. Most famously, the courts have judged that the constitutionality of the self-defense forces should be left to elected representatives.
Japan still imposes the death penalty. Authorities have been pressured to improve treatment of prisoners since the passage of a law in 2007 meant to end abuse, but with little watchdog or whistleblower activity it is unclear to what degree actual conditions have improved.
Minority groups in Japan are increasingly overcoming social stigmas and demanding their full rights as guaranteed under the law. Under the previous DPJ government from 2009 to 2012, there was discussion of allowing non-Japanese permanent residents—principally the large ethnic Korean population—to participate in local elections, but there was been no progress on this issue in 2014.
Antidiscrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity, and laws on rape and prostitution do not address same-sex activity. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people reportedly face social stigma and some cases of harassment.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 14 / 16 (+1)
Japanese are free to live, work, travel, and study where they wish. The Japanese economy is heavily regulated and private business is subject to bureaucratic restrictions, though not to an exceptional degree. The government actively encourages entrepreneurship. Yakuza—members of Japanese organized crime—are still present in Japan, but their economic influence has been vastly reduced outside of nightlife and construction (day labor). Several gumi (crime families) have sought to shift to mainstream businesses such as finance.
Women are granted equal rights under the law and are free to choose their roles and relationships, including reproductive choice. In practice, however, women continue to face outdated social norms and inequality in the workplace. It remains difficult for women to have a family and maintain a career at the same time, at least in white-collar professions. A cabinet reshuffle in September 2014 brought in a record-tying five women cabinet members, but their appointments were overshadowed when two female cabinet members resigned over minor campaign finance scandals in October.
Young Japanese suffer from a lack of stable, long-term employment opportunities. A traditionally rigid work culture and roles are becoming increasingly flexible.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year