Freedom in the World
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Japan is a parliamentary democracy with a multiparty system. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed for most of the period since 1955, though it has served two stints in opposition since the 1990s. Political rights and civil liberties are generally well respected. Outstanding challenges include ethnic and gender-based discrimination, claims of unduly close relations between government and the business sector, and politically fraught disagreements over the legacy of the pre-1945 regime and the future of Japan’s military, or Self-Defense Forces.
- The LDP and its junior coalition partner gained ground in July elections for the upper house of parliament, giving them enough seats to pass possible constitutional revisions.
- Also in July, former defense minister Yuriko Koike was elected as Tokyo’s first female governor, having run as an independent after the LDP endorsed a rival candidate.
- Press freedom watchdogs reported media self-censorship in response to government complaints about coverage, with three television presenters losing their positions in March due to perceived government pressure.
In July 2016 elections for the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s National Diet, the ruling coalition of the LDP and Kōmeitō won a decisive victory. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had merged in March with the Japan Innovation Party to contest the elections as the new Democratic Party (DP). It also agreed not to compete with three smaller parties in an unsuccessful bid to deny the LDP the two-thirds majority it would need to adopt constitutional amendments.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has called for amendments that would loosen constraints on military action by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, among other revisions. It took no major steps toward such a change during the year, though as part of a cabinet shuffle in August, Abe appointed a hawkish supporter of constitutional revision, Tomomi Inada, to the post of defense minister.
Japan is a parliamentary democracy, with representative assemblies at the municipal, prefectural, and national levels. The national assembly, or Diet, has two chambers. The more powerful lower house, the House of Representatives, is made up of 475 members elected to four-year terms. The upper house, the House of Councillors, has 242 members serving six-year terms, with half up for election every three years. The House of Representatives has a mixture of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, while the House of Councillors uses a mixture of single- and multimember districts and nationwide proportional representation.
The House of Representatives elects the prime minister. The prime minister and his cabinet can dissolve the lower house, but not the upper house. The lower house can also pass a no-confidence resolution that forces the cabinet to either resign or dissolve the House of Representatives. Japan’s emperor serves in a ceremonial capacity.
Elections in Japan are free and fair. In snap elections for the House of Representatives in December 2014, the LDP won 291 seats, and its coalition partner, Kōmeitō, won 35, meaning they would retain a two-thirds majority. The DJP won 73 seats, the newly formed Japan Innovation Party took 41 seats, the Japanese Communist Party secured 21, and the remaining seats were divided among smaller parties.
As a result of the July 2016 upper house elections, the LDP had 122 seats and Kōmeitō had 25. The opposition DP had 50 seats, and the Japanese Communist Party had 14. Five smaller groups and independents made up the remainder, and some supported the LDP’s constitutional revision plan, giving it the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Any amendments would need to pass with supermajorities in both houses and win approval in a referendum to take effect.
There is a notable degree of malapportionment in both chambers of parliament, to the benefit of the rural districts from which the LDP draws significant support. A handful of Supreme Court rulings in recent years seemed to encourage the Diet to address the issue, but reforms so far have been minor. Due to limited redistricting, the highest vote-value disparity in the 2016 elections, about 3.08 to 1, was lower than in the previous upper house elections in 2013, when the figure was estimated at 4.77 to 1. Several court rulings during the year still found the districts to be “in a state of unconstitutionality,” but declined to invalidate the elections.
The June 2016 resignation of Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe over his misuse of public funds triggered a gubernatorial election in July. Former defense minister Yuriko Koike, an LDP member who ran as an independent, easily defeated opponents endorsed by the LDP and the DP, taking about 44 percent of the vote.
The LDP is an ideologically broad party whose members’ political beliefs range from the center to the far right, though they share a commitment to economic growth and free enterprise. The party has been a dominant force in Japanese politics since its creation in 1955, though it was voted out of office twice—for a brief period in 1993–94, after a significant group of LDP Diet members formed a reformist opposition faction, and from 2009 to 2012, when a series of three DPJ prime ministers held power.
Japan’s other parliamentary parties represent a variety of views. They include the liberal or center-left DP; the conservative Kōmeitō, which began as the political extension of a lay Buddhist movement; the Japanese Communist Party, which retains a substantial following; and the Social Democratic Party. Koike’s victory in the 2016 Tokyo governor’s race fueled speculation on whether she would lead a new opposition group or seek national office through the LDP.
People’s political choices are free from domination by powerful interests. There are no legal barriers preventing ethnic and religious minorities from freely participating in the political process. In September 2016, the DP elected Renhō Murata, whose father was Taiwanese, as its new leader.
Elected officials are free to govern without interference, though Japanese bureaucrats have a strong degree of control over policy. While corruption in government is generally low, and petty bribery is very rare, observers have expressed concerns about unduly close relationships between some government officials and business leaders. Retiring bureaucrats often quickly secure high-paying positions with companies that receive significant government contracts. The practice has increasingly drawn criticism from across the political spectrum.
An October 2015 report by the free expression advocacy group Article 19 found that the country’s access to information legislation, which came into force in 2001, has not always been implemented effectively, with requesters encountering high fees and lengthy waits. All 47 of Japan’s prefectures have also enacted laws ensuring citizens’ access to information.
The 2013 Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets allows for unclassified information to be automatically shared with the public, but it also empowers state agencies to protect information on a range of security or diplomatic matters, with criminal penalties for those who reveal designated secrets, including journalists.
Japan has a free and highly competitive media landscape. Under the traditional kisha kurabu (press club) system, institutions such as government ministries and corporate organizations have restricted the release of news to those journalists and media outlets with membership in their clubs, essentially exchanging access for moderate coverage and discouraging critical articles. In recent years, online media and weekly newsmagazines have begun challenging the daily papers’ dominance of political news with more aggressive reporting. The government does not restrict internet access.
There were reports in 2016 of government pressure on media outlets to refrain from critical coverage. In March, three prominent television news presenters were removed from their positions by their respective networks following indirect warnings from the government in February that broadcasters could theoretically be shut down for political bias. After a country visit in April, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression noted apparently high levels of self-censorship in print and broadcast media.
Freedom of religion is mandated in the constitution, and there are no substantial barriers to religious expression. Aside from the traditional religions of Buddhism and Shintoism, Japan is home to small Christian and Muslim populations. There have been reports of significant state surveillance of the Muslim community; officials have tacitly acknowledged some such programs, and defended them as within legal limits.
There are no restrictions on academic freedom, but education has long been a focus of public and political debate. While there is not a national curriculum or single official history text, the Ministry of Education’s screening process has approved textbooks that downplay Japan’s history of imperialism and war atrocities. Conservatives in the LDP and the Ministry of Education often clash with the more left-leaning teachers’ union. At the university level, there is a wide diversity of views among faculty and active academic debate on a broad range of issues. The government does not restrict private discussion.
Freedom of assembly is protected under the constitution. Protests, large and small, take place frequently. Demonstrations against the U.S. military presence on Okinawa continued in 2016, with tens of thousands of participants gathering in June after an American base worker was arrested in May for the murder of a local woman.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are legally recognized and protected under the 1999 Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities, and they remained diverse and active in 2016. Labor unions are also active, but because most private-sector unions are small and company specific, the labor movement has never achieved its potential nationwide influence. While labor laws are generally adhered to, there are some restrictions on the ability to strike and bargain for those employed in certain essential sectors, including health care and transportation.
Japan’s judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects generally receive fair public trials by an impartial tribunal within three months of being detained. For serious criminal cases, a judicial panel composed of professional judges and saiban-in (lay judges), selected from the general public, rule on defendants. Police may detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge in order to extract confessions. Foreign analysts have questioned the high rate at which they say warrants are issued, and have claimed that people are often detained on flimsy evidence, arrested multiple times for the same alleged crime, or subjected to lengthy or coercive interrogations. Observers have also argued that trials often favor the prosecution.
There are frequent reports of substandard medical care in Japanese prisons. Prisoners facing death sentences or accused of crimes that could carry the death penalty are held in solitary confinement, sometimes for years at a time.
Organized crime is fairly prominent, particularly in the construction and nightlife industries. Police worked during 2016 to suppress a conflict between Japan’s largest criminal organization, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and a splinter group that broke away in 2015, arresting hundreds of members of both groups by September.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status. Entrenched societal discrimination prevents Japan’s estimated three million burakumin—descendants of feudal-era outcasts—and the indigenous Ainu minority from gaining equal access to housing and employment, though such forms of discrimination are slowly waning as traditional social distinctions weaken. Japan-born descendants of colonial subjects (particularly ethnic Koreans and Chinese) continue to suffer similar disadvantages.
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 in some cases harassment.
Citizens enjoy broad personal autonomy in their choices of residence, profession, and education. Property rights are generally respected. People are free to establish private businesses, but can face financial and other obstacles in Japan’s heavily regulated economy.
Although women 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. A 2015 Supreme Court ruling upheld a law requiring married couples to use the same surname, and a Tokyo court ruled in October 2016 that a married female plaintiff did not have the right to use her birth name at work. Women remain underrepresented in government, with some 9 percent of seats in the Diet’s lower house and about 21 percent in the upper house, though by the end of 2016 women held the important positions of Tokyo governor, leader of the opposition, defense minister, and internal affairs minister.
Traffickers frequently bring foreign women into the country for forced sex work in brothels and clubs by arranging fraudulent marriages with Japanese men. Some Japanese women and girls are also at risk of sex trafficking. Foreign workers enrolled in state-backed technical “internships” sometimes face exploitative conditions and forced labor; in November 2016 the Diet passed legislation designed to strengthen oversight of the program and punish violations.