Japan is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed almost continuously since 1955, with stints in opposition from 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2012. Political rights and civil liberties are generally well respected. Outstanding challenges include ethnic and gender-based discrimination and claims of improperly close relations between government and the business sector.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In September, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe won reelection as president of the LDP, defeating intraparty rival Shigeru Ishiba and clearing the way to become the longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japanese history.
- Responding to workforce challenges presented by the country’s aging population and low fertility rate, the parliament passed legislation in December with the aim of attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign workers over the next five years.
- A total of 15 executions were carried out in 2018, the largest annual number since 2008. Amnesty International noted that some of the convicts had yet to fully exhaust their appeals.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 40 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Japan is a parliamentary democracy. The prime minister is the head of government and is chosen by the freely elected parliament. The prime minister selects the cabinet, which can include a limited number of ministers who are not members of the parliament. Japan’s emperor serves as head of state in a ceremonial capacity.
Shinzō Abe has been prime minister since 2012, having previously served for a year in 2006–2007. In September 2018, the ruling LDP held the first contested election for its party presidency in six years. Abe won 329 of the 405 votes from LDP lawmakers, while Shigeru Ishiba won 73. Abe also won 224 of the 405 points awarded by rank-and-file LDP members, while Ishiba took 181. The outcome all but ensured that Abe would remain prime minister until the next parliamentary elections, which are due by late 2021.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The parliament, or Diet, has two chambers. The more powerful lower house, the House of Representatives, has 465 members elected to maximum four-year terms through a mixture of single-member districts and proportional representation. The upper house, the House of Councillors, has 242 members serving fixed six-year terms, with half elected every three years using a mixture of nationwide proportional representation and prefecture-based voting. The prime minister and his cabinet can dissolve the House of Representatives, but not the House of Councillors. The lower house can also pass a no-confidence resolution that forces the cabinet to either resign or dissolve the House of Representatives.
Legislative elections in Japan are free and fair. In 2017, Prime Minister Abe dissolved the lower house and called for snap elections, citing a need for a fresh mandate in light of an increasing threat posed by North Korea, which had fired ballistic missiles over northern Japan. The LDP won 281 lower house seats, and an allied party, Komeito, took 29. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) won 54, the Party of Hope secured 50, and smaller parties and independents captured the remainder.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Japan’s electoral laws are generally fair and well enforced. Campaigning is heavily regulated, which typically benefits incumbents, although the rules are applied equally to all candidates. Malapportionment in favor of the rural districts from which the LDP draws significant support has been a persistent problem. In 2017, a new redistricting law designed to reduce the voting weight disparities between urban and rural districts took effect. Districts will be revised again in 2020 after the census is conducted.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Parties generally do not face undue restrictions on registration or operation. In 2017, liberal and left-leaning lawmakers who broke away from the opposition Democratic Party (DP) formed the CDP, which became the leading opposition party after that year’s lower house elections. The Party of Hope, led by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, also formed in 2017, after she left the LDP. In May 2018, the Party of Hope merged with the DP to form the center-right Democratic Party for the People (DPFP).
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
While the LDP has governed for most of Japan’s postwar history, there have been democratic transfers of power to and from alternative parties, most recently when the LDP returned to government in 2012. Opposition parties are represented in the parliament and govern at the subnational level. In September 2018, for example, opposition politician Denny Tamaki won the Okinawa gubernatorial election, pledging to block a government plan to relocate a US military base within Okinawa and instead push for it to be removed entirely.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
People’s political choices are generally free from improper interference by powerful interests that are not democratically accountable.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Citizens enjoy equal rights to vote and run in elections regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Women remain underrepresented in government. In May 2018, the Diet passed a nonbinding measure to promote gender-balanced assemblies, urging parties to nominate equal numbers of male and female candidates.
Around 600,000 ethnic Koreans—mainly the multigenerational descendants of forced laborers brought to Japan before 1945—hold special residency privileges but not Japanese citizenship, and are therefore ineligible to participate in national elections. Most but not all are South Korean nationals, and they have the option of applying for Japanese citizenship.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Elected officials are free to govern without interference, though senior civil servants have some influence over policy.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4
The prevalence of corruption in government is relatively low, and media coverage of political corruption scandals is widespread and vigorous. However, some government officials have close relations with business leaders, and retiring bureaucrats often quickly secure high-paying positions with companies that receive significant government contracts. In July 2018, Futoshi Sano, a top Ministry of Education bureaucrat, was arrested in a bribery scandal for allegedly steering government subsidies to the Tokyo Medical University in exchange for his son’s admission.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
The government generally operates with openness and transparency. Access to information legislation allows individuals to request information from government agencies, but in practice the law has not always been implemented effectively. In March 2018, the Finance Ministry admitted that it had falsified government documents related to a scandal in which public land was sold on favorable terms to a private school with ties to the prime minister’s wife.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 56 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution, and Japan has a highly competitive media sector. However, press freedom advocates have expressed concern about the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, which took effect in 2014 and allows journalists to be prosecuted for revealing state secrets, even if that information was unknowingly obtained. A 2017 report by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression noted concern about pressure on the media from the government, and recommended the repeal of Article 4 of the Broadcast Act, which gives the government the power to determine what information is “fair” and thus acceptable for public broadcast.
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. In recent years, however, online media and weekly newsmagazines have challenged the daily papers’ dominance of political news with more aggressive reporting.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and there are no substantial barriers to religious expression or the expression of nonbelief.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and mostly respected in practice, but education and textbooks have 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. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on the government to reevaluate its influence on the textbook approval process.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
The government does not restrict private discussion. Some observers have expressed concern that antiterrorism and anticonspiracy legislation that went into effect in 2017 could permit undue surveillance.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected under the constitution, and peaceful demonstrations take place frequently. In 2018, protests were held on topics including scandals in the Abe administration, the proposed relocation of the US base on Okinawa, and a new immigration bill announced late in the year. On the immigration issue, far-right opponents of an increase in foreign workers were met with counterprotesters opposed to racism.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations are generally free from undue restrictions and remained diverse and active in 2018.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Most workers have the legal right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. However, public-sector workers are barred from striking, and some, such as firefighters and prison staff, cannot form unions. Labor unions are active and exert political influence through the Japanese Trade Union Confederation and other groupings.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
Japan’s judiciary is independent. For serious criminal cases, a judicial panel composed of professional judges and saiban-in (lay judges), selected from the general public, render verdicts.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
Constitutional guarantees of due process are generally upheld. However, observers have argued that trials often favor the prosecution. There are reports that suspects have been detained on flimsy evidence, arrested multiple times for the same alleged crime, or subjected to lengthy interrogations that yield what amount to forced confessions. Police can detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge. Access to those in pretrial detention is sometimes limited.
New legislation adopted in 2017 added nearly 300 categories of conspiracy offenses to the criminal code in order to help unravel terrorist plots and organized crime networks. Critics of the changes raised concerns that they gave the government too much authority to restrict civil liberties.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
People in Japan are generally protected from the illegitimate use of physical force and the threat of war and insurgencies. Violent crime rates are low. However, organized crime is fairly prominent, particularly in the construction and nightlife sectors; crime groups also run drug-trafficking and loansharking operations.
There are frequent reports of substandard medical care in 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. A total of 15 executions were carried out in 2018, the largest annual number since 2008. All but two of those executed were members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult convicted of involvement in 1995 terrorist attacks. Amnesty International noted that some of the convicts had yet to fully exhaust their appeals; death row inmates can request retrials even after the Supreme Court has confirmed their sentences.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Societal discrimination against Japan’s estimated three million burakumin—descendants of feudal-era outcasts—and the indigenous Ainu minority is declining, but it can affect their access to housing and employment. Japan-born descendants of colonial subjects (particularly ethnic Koreans and Chinese) continue to suffer similar disadvantages. A 2016 hate speech law calls on the government to take steps to eliminate discriminatory speech against ethnic minorities, but it does not carry any penalties for perpetrators.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face social stigma and in some cases harassment; there is no national law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, though Tokyo passed a municipal antidiscrimination law in October 2018. In 2016, sexual harassment regulations for national public officials were modified to prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Employment discrimination and sexual harassment against women are common.
Very few asylum seekers are granted asylum in Japan. Only 42 people received asylum during 2018, while nearly 10,500 applied. Japan also accepts a small number of refugees for third-country resettlement.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 14 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are few significant restrictions on internal or international travel, or on individuals’ ability to change their place of residence, employment, and education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
Property rights are generally respected. People are free to establish private businesses, although Japan’s economy is heavily regulated.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
While personal social freedoms are mostly protected, there are some limitations. The country’s system of family registration, koseki, recognizes people as members of a family unit and requires married couples to share a surname, which usually defaults to the husband’s last name. This can create legal complications for women as well as children born out of wedlock or to divorced parents, among others. There is no legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Japan. Domestic violence is punishable by law, and protective orders and other services are available for victims, but such abuse often goes unreported.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Individuals generally enjoy equality of opportunity, and the legal framework provides safeguards against exploitative working conditions. However, long workdays are common in practice and have been criticized as harmful to workers’ health. In June 2018, the parliament passed legislation to cap overtime work at 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year, but it allowed up to 100 hours of overtime in a month under some circumstances, and it removed all overtime rules for professional workers who earn more than three times the average salary in Japan.
Many workers are temporary or contract employees with substantially lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security than regular employees. In December 2018, the parliament approved a measure allowing the government to issue up to 345,000 five-year visas for foreign workers in sectors facing labor shortages. Critics of the measure said it could perpetuate the exploitation of temporary foreign workers rather than opening the door to permanent immigration. Foreign workers enrolled in existing state-backed technical “internships” sometimes face exploitative conditions and forced labor.
Commercial sexual exploitation also remains a problem. Traffickers frequently bring foreign women into the country for forced sex work by arranging fraudulent marriages with Japanese men.