Japan has a parliamentary government with a constitutional monarchy. On November 10, Kishida Fumio, the new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, was confirmed as prime minister. International observers assessed elections to the Lower House of the Diet in October, which the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, won with an absolute majority, as free and fair. Domestic lawyers filed lawsuits seeking to nullify the results of the Lower House election in all electoral districts for alleged unconstitutional vote weight disparities (see Section 3, Elections and Political Participation).
The National Public Safety Commission, a cabinet-level entity, oversees the National Police Agency, and prefectural public safety commissions have responsibility for local police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, or indigenous peoples. There were concerns that some laws and practices, if misused, could infringe on freedom of the press. A human rights concern was criminal libel laws, although there was no evidence the government abused these laws to restrict public discussion.
The government had mechanisms in place to identify and punish officials who may commit human rights abuses or engage in corrupt practices. There were no known reports of such action during the year.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.
The government continued to deny death row inmates advance information about the date of execution until the day the sentence was to be carried out. The government notified family members of executions after the fact. The government held that this policy spared prisoners the anguish of knowing when they were going to die.
Authorities by law hold prisoners condemned to death in solitary confinement until their execution but allowed visits by family, lawyers, and others. The length of such solitary confinement varied from case to case and may extend for several years.
Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions generally met international standards, although some prisons continued to lack adequate medical and mental health care, and sufficient heating in the winter or cooling in the summer. Prisoners in the Tokyo area presented chilblains-affected fingers and toes of varying severity resulting from long-term exposure to cold. Meals were strictly rationed and were often considered insufficient, leading to significant weight loss, according to independent observers. Prisons and detention centers routinely held prisoners and detainees alone in their cells for extended periods. While not generally applied punitively, this resulted in what was effectively solitary confinement. Prisoners routinely spent up to 24 hours a day in their cells, with exercise periods not consistently allowed.
Long-term detention of foreign nationals at immigration centers continued to be a concern. In response to COVID-19, the Ministry of Justice granted temporary release to many detainees, reducing the population in immigration facilities from more than 1,000 in April 2020 to 346 as of June 2. Of the 346, approximately 60 percent had been detained for more than six months, some for as long as eight years. Detention practices led to an increasing number of protests, including hunger strikes, among detainees. Some facilities imposed forceful control of detainees, including women, and failed to protect detainees’ privacy.
Once sentenced, convicted prisoners generally had no access to telephones.
Physical Conditions: Authorities held women separately from men, and juveniles younger than age 20 separately from adults in prisons, other correctional facilities, and immigration facilities.
From April 2019 through March 2020, third-party inspection committees of prisons and immigration detention centers documented inadequate medical care as a major concern. Inspection committees also called for providing prison officers with additional human rights education, enhancing COVID-19 preventive measures, and improving heating and cooling systems. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2020 there were 292 doctors working at correctional institutions, approximately 90 percent of the required staffing level.
On March 6, 33-year-old Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, detained at an immigration facility in Nagoya for more than six months for overstaying her visa, died at a hospital from an unidentified disease, according to an Immigration Services Agency report. Wishma began complaining of stomach pain and other symptoms in January and continued applying for provisional release for hospital treatment. She requested a physical exam at a hospital outside the facility in late February, but the request was never relayed to management and was not met. Instead, the facility conducted an exam at a hospital’s psychiatric department on March 4. The Nagoya facility had only a part-time doctor who worked twice a week for two hours each shift. No medical personnel were available on Saturdays, the day on which Wishma died. The Immigration Services Agency attributed the facility’s delay in placing an emergency call to the absence of consultation with a medical professional. On August 10, the Immigration Services Agency established a 20-member team to promote reform; four officials who oversaw Wishma’s detention were given verbal warnings. The nongovernmental organizations (NGO) Arbitrary Detention Network, Human Rights Now, and Foreign Human Rights Law Liaison Committee issued a statement protesting the report, calling its study of the cause of death and its recommendations for preventive measures insufficient. They also voiced concerns about insufficient medical resources, communication failures, the facility’s staffers’ disregard for the detainee’s complaint, and lack of proper oversight their rights.
Administration: Most authorities permitted prisoners and immigration detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities and to request investigation of alleged problems. Legal experts and human rights NGOs, however, continued to raise concerns that authorities controlled the complaint process at immigration detention centers. Complainants were, for example, required to notify detention officers about complaints. Authorities provided the responses to prisoners and immigration detainees in a letter offering little detail beyond a final determination.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally allowed scheduled visits by elected officials, NGOs, members of the media, and international organizations.
By law the Ministry of Justice appointed members to inspection committees for government-run prisons and immigration detention centers from outside of the national government. Authorities permitted the committees, which include physicians, lawyers, local municipal officials, local citizens, and experts, to interview detainees without the presence of prison and immigration detention center officers. Prisons and immigration detention centers generally acted upon or gave serious consideration to their recommendations.
Legal experts and human rights NGOs, however, raised concerns about aspects of the inspection process and the teams’ makeup. Police supervisory authorities and prefectural public safety commissions appointed the members of inspection committees for police detention facilities, albeit from outside of the police force. Authorities also accepted some recommendations by NGOs in selecting inspection committee members. Legal experts and human rights NGOs also continued to voice concern that undisclosed selection criteria and the members themselves impeded nongovernmental experts’ ability to evaluate whether the selected members were appropriately qualified. In immigration detention facilities, detention officers were also responsible for scheduling on-site inspections by the inspection committees and determining the time allowed for committees to interview detainees.
NGOs and the UN Committee against Torture also continued to raise concerns about the inspection process. For instance, they cited concerns about the requirement to submit advance notifications to facility authorities. They also raised concerns about a lack of transparency in the selection of committee members.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. Police officers may stop and question any person who is suspected of having committed or whom they believe is about to commit a crime or possesses information on a crime. Civil society organizations continued to urge police to end ethnic profiling and unjustified surveillance of foreigners.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Authorities apprehended persons openly with warrants based on evidence and issued by a duly authorized official and brought detainees before an independent judiciary. In urgent cases when there is sufficient basis to suspect that suspects committed specific crimes, including a crime punishable by death, the law allows police to arrest suspects without obtaining warrants beforehand, but it requires police to seek to obtain warrants immediately after arrest.
The law allows suspects, their families, or representatives to request that the court release an indicted detainee on bail. Bail is not available prior to indictment. NGOs and legal experts stated bail was very difficult to obtain without a confession. Authorities tended to restrict access to defense counsel for detainees who did not confess. Other elements of arrest and pretrial detention practices (see below) also tended to encourage confessions. The Public Prosecutors Office reported that in 2020 approximately 67 percent of all criminal suspects who were referred to prosecutors by police did not face indictment. Prosecutors indicted the remaining approximately 33 percent, of whom nearly all were convicted. In most of these cases, suspects had confessed.
Suspects in pre-indictment detention are legally required to face interrogation. Police guidelines limit interrogations to a maximum of eight hours a day and prohibit overnight interrogations. Pre-indictment detainees have access to counsel, including at least one consultation with a court-appointed attorney, if required. There is no legal right, however, for defense counsel to be present during interrogations.
The law allows police to prohibit suspects from meeting with persons other than counsel (and a consular officer in the case of foreign detainees) if there is probable cause to believe that the suspect may flee or conceal or destroy evidence (see Pretrial Detention below). Many suspects, including most charged with drug offenses, were subject to this restriction before indictment, although some were permitted visits from family members in the presence of a detention officer. There is no legal connection between the type of offense and the length of time authorities may deny a suspect visits by family or others. Those held for organized crime or on charges involving other criminals, however, tended to be denied such visits because prosecutors believed that communications with family or others could interfere with investigations.
Police and prosecutors must record the entire interrogation process in cases involving heinous crimes, including murder, death or injury resulting from rape, arson, and kidnapping for ransom. In such cases, an arrested suspect’s statements to police and prosecutors during an interrogation are in principle inadmissible without a recording. According to legal experts, this was intended to prevent forced confessions and false charges. Police are also required to make best efforts to record the interrogation process when arrested suspects have a mental disability. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations noted that criminal cases subject to video recording constituted 2 percent of the country’s criminal cases in 2018, and it advocated expanding the measure to include the video recording of the interrogations of pre-arrest suspects and in all criminal cases. Legal experts therefore continued to express concerns about forced confessions, especially in cases involving white-collar crimes.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were credible reports of foreigners being stopped and searched by police in suspected racial-profiling incidents. Individuals were detained, questioned, and searched. In multiple cases, Black individuals were accused of having drugs on their body, although there was no reason to believe this to be the case. In some cases, individuals were required to remove their shoes, belts, and other clothing items in public, and within view of bystanders.
In June a Muslim woman reported that police allowed an ethnic Japanese man to verbally assault her and her three-year-old daughter. The man alleged that the daughter kicked the man’s son, which the mother denied. The woman said she and her child were detained for 90 minutes before being taken to the police station where they were questioned for three hours in a small room with five officers before they were separated for additional questioning. According to the mother, police gave her name, address, and phone number to the man without her permission. The man then posted pictures of the woman and her daughter on social media with the caption “Attempted Murderers.”
Pretrial Detention: Authorities routinely held suspects in police-operated detention centers for an initial 72 hours prior to indictment although, by law, such detention is allowed only when there is probable cause to suspect that a person has committed a crime and is likely to conceal or destroy evidence or flee. After interviewing a suspect at the end of the initial 72-hour period, a judge may extend pre-indictment custody for up to two consecutive 10-day periods. Prosecutors routinely sought and received such extensions. Prosecutors may also apply for an additional five-day extension in exceptional cases, such as insurrection, foreign aggression, or violent public assembly.
NGOs and legal experts reported the practice of detaining suspects in pre-indictment detention or daiyou kangoku (substitute prison) continued. Because judges customarily granted prosecutors’ requests for extensions, pre-indictment detention usually lasted for 23 days for nearly all suspects, including foreigners. Moreover, the 23-day detention period may be applied on a per charge basis, so individuals facing multiple charges may be held far longer. NGOs and foreign observers continued to report that for persons in daiyou kangoku, access to persons other than their attorneys was routinely denied, and they were subject to lengthy interrogation without counsel throughout this period.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Defendants are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty, but NGOs and lawyers continued to suggest that this was not the case because of the pressure on suspects to confess prior to trial. Foreign suspects with time-limited visas often confessed in exchange for a suspended sentence in order to close the case before their visas, which are not extended for trial, expire. The time between the conclusion of the trial and the rendering of the verdict and subsequent sentencing can be very long, especially in more complex cases, to allow judges to re-examine evidence.
Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges against them. Each charged individual has the right to a trial without undue delay (although observers noted that trials could be delayed indefinitely for mentally ill prisoners); to access to defense counsel, including an attorney provided at public expense if indigent; and to cross-examine witnesses. There is a lay judge (jury) system for serious criminal cases. Defendants have the right to attend their trials and may not be compelled to testify against themselves. Authorities provided free interpretation services to foreign defendants in criminal cases. Foreign defendants in civil cases must pay for interpretation, although a judge may order the plaintiff to pay the charges in accordance with a court’s final decision.
Defendants have the right to appoint their own counsel to prepare a defense, present evidence, and appeal. The court may assist defendants in finding an attorney through a bar association. Defendants may request a court-appointed attorney at state expense if they are unable to afford one.
Trial procedures favored the prosecution. Observers said a prohibition against defense counsel’s use of electronic recording devices during interviews with clients undermined counsel effectiveness. The law also does not require full disclosure by prosecutors unless the defending attorney satisfies difficult disclosure procedure conditions, which could lead to the suppression of material favorable to the defense.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations called for an end to the usual practice of restraining criminal defendants with handcuffs and ropes around their waists, ostensibly to prevent escape attempts, during entry into and exit from the courtroom, which they argued could undermine the presumption of innocence. The handcuffs and ropes are removed during trials.
NGOs expressed concern about the retrial process for inmates on death row because execution is not stayed for a pending petition of retrial, which the Japan Federation of Bar Associations asserted called into question the validity of executions.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters. There are both administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs. Individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights abuse with domestic courts.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected these freedoms. An independent media, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to sustain freedom of expression.
Freedom of Expression: There is a hate speech law designed to eliminate hate speech against persons originating from outside the country by developing government consultation systems and promoting government awareness efforts. The law, however, neither penalizes nor prohibits hate speech, so as not to impede freedom of speech. Legal and civil society experts acknowledged a continued decrease in hate speech at street demonstrations since the law, and subsequent municipal ordinances, went into effect in 2016. In contrast hate speech increased in propaganda and online, while crimes targeting members of specific ethnicities also continued, according to experts who called on the government to implement more effective deterrent measures and conduct a survey on hate speech incidents. Eight local governments have ordinances to prevent hate speech – Osaka City in Osaka Prefecture; Setagaya Ward, Kunitachi City, and Komae City in Tokyo Prefecture; Kijo Town in Miyazaki Prefecture; Kobe City, and Kawasaki City. Kawasaki is the first and only government with an ordinance imposing fines as a criminal penalty.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. While no such cases have ever been pursued, the law enables the government to prosecute those who publish or disclose government information that is a specially designated secret. Those convicted face up to five years’ imprisonment with work and a substantial fine.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Domestic and international observers continued to express concerns that the system of kisha (reporter) clubs attached to government agencies may encourage self-censorship. These clubs are established in a variety of organizations, including government ministries, and may block nonmembers, including freelance and foreign reporters, from covering the organization.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal as well as civil offense. The law does not accept the truthfulness of a statement as a defense. There was no evidence the government abused these laws to restrict public discussion.