Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these freedoms. The independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to sustain freedom of expression.
Freedom of Speech: 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 experts acknowledged a continued decrease in hate speech at demonstrations since the law came into effect. In contrast hate speech increased in propaganda, election campaigning, and online, while crimes targeting members of specific ethnicities also continued, according to experts. They called on the government to implement more effective deterrent measures and conduct a survey on hate speech incidents. The government has not conducted such a survey since 2016.
According to legal experts, hate speech and hate crimes against ethnic Koreans, especially against Korean women and students, were numerous, but there were also incidents directed at other racial and ethnic minorities. Legal experts pointed out that hate speech against Chinese and Ainu also increased after the COVID-19 outbreak and the opening of the government-run National Ainu Museum in July, respectively.
As of October, three local governments had ordinances to prevent hate speech–Osaka City, Tokyo Metropolitan, and Kawasaki City. In January a public center for exchange programs with foreign nationals run by the city of Kawasaki received letters threatening the genocide of ethnic Koreans in Japan. This came after the city government became the first municipality to pass an ordinance with a penalty (a fine) for repeat offenders of hate speech in public places. In July, Kawasaki authorities arrested a suspect for violating the ordinance. Moreover, the Kawasaki city government requested in October that Twitter delete two messages the city identified as hate speech against an ethnic Korean woman. This was the first such request the city submitted to a social media company since the ordinance went into effect.
Freedom of 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 censorship. These clubs are established in a variety of organizations, including 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 in itself as a defense. There is no evidence the government abused these laws to restrict public discussion during the year.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. In March the Ministry of Justice reported that the number of human rights violations via the internet increased by 3.9 percent in 2019.
There were no reported incidents of governmental restriction of academic freedom or cultural events.
Using updated education guidelines, the Ministry of Education continues to screen and approve textbooks. As has been the case in the past, the approval process for history textbooks, particularly its treatment of the country’s 20th century colonial and military history, continued to be a subject of controversy.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except for travel restrictions implemented by the government from and to the country as COVID-19 infection prevention measures.
In-country Movement: In an effort to prevent COVID-19 infections, the government requested individuals refrain from interprefectural travel for certain periods during the year, but such requests did not carry the force of law.
Foreign Travel: The government’s COVID-19 infection prevention measures restricted entry to the country by all foreign nationals, including re-entry by residents, from April to September 1. Citizens were not subject to foreign travel restrictions.
The government generally provided adequate shelter and other protective services in the aftermath of natural disasters in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. As of January, 709 persons were living in temporary housing as a result of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant disaster in the northeastern part of the country.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection for and assistance to refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs and civil society groups expressed concern about the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum-seekers and conditions in detention facilities. Legal experts and UNHCR noted that lengthy detention led to detainee protests, including by hunger strikes, generally intended to create a health concern that would warrant medical release. According a March report by the Immigration Services Agency, authorities temporarily released some detainees from immigration facilities when they refused to eat and refused medical intervention. Legal experts reported that as of September, 198 detainees engaged in hunger strikes in immigration facilities around the nation to protest their detention.
In August the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (Working Group) concluded that the government’s detention of an Iranian and a Kurdish applicant for refugee status for a cumulative total of nearly five years–until April and June–was “arbitrary.” Although the government argued the detention was in accordance with domestic law, the Working Group maintained the detentions lacked necessity and reasonable grounds.
In June an expert panel appointed by the justice minister to address lengthy detentions and poor conditions in immigration facilities submitted recommendations that took into account recommendations from the UN Working Group and Japan Federation of Bar Associations. Persons under deportation order had the right to refuse deportation and most did, often because of fear of returning home or because they had family in the country. According to Justice Ministry statistics released in June, in 2019 a substantial majority of those under deportation orders refused deportation. Of those who refused deportation, 60 percent in 2019 were in the process of applying for refugee status. By law the government may not deport those who are subject to deportation orders while their refugee applications are pending.
In October the president of the Federation of Bar Associations urged the government to respond seriously to the Working Group’s conclusions and amend the immigration law accordingly. The same month, however, the justice minister commented publicly that the prolonged detention issue would end if those who were subject to deportation orders accepted deportation.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status. The country’s refugee screening process was, however, strict; in 2019 the government granted 44 applicants refugee status out of 10,375 applications and appeals (vice 42 out of 10,493 in 2018). NGOs and UNHCR expressed concern about the low rate of approval. Civil society and legal groups expressed concern about the restrictive screening procedures that led applicants to voluntarily withdraw their applications and accept deportation, specifically claiming that the government’s interpretation of “fear of persecution” used when adjudicating refugee claims was overly restrictive. Civil society groups reported that it takes an average of three years for an applicant to be recognized as a refugee, and some cases involving multiple appeals have lasted 10 years.
Immigration authorities administered the first round of hearings on whether to grant refugee status. Refugee and asylum applicants were not allowed to have lawyers participate in the first round of hearings, except for applicants in vulnerable positions, including minors age 15 or younger who have no guardians and applicants with disabilities, who may ask for approval for lawyers to participate in their first round of hearings. Yet legal experts reported there had been only one case where the government allowed the participation of a lawyer in the first hearing.
Immigration authorities also conducted hearings to review complaints from applicants about problems with the process.
A panel, the Refugee Examination Counselors, appointed by the justice minister from outside (by law) the ministry, conducted second hearings to review appeals from persons denied refugee status at their first hearing. All persons appearing before the counselors had the right to an attorney. The counselors included university professors, former prosecutors, lawyers, former diplomats, and NGO representatives, according to the Justice Ministry. The minister is obliged to hear, but not to accept, the opinions of the counselors. Legal experts questioned whether the review system delivered fair judgements, citing Justice Ministry statistics showing it granted refugee status to only one of the 8,291 applicants who filed appeals in 2019.
As government-funded legal support was not available for most refugee and asylum-seekers requesting it, the Federation of Bar Associations continued to fund a program that provided free legal assistance to applicants who could not afford it.
While refugee applicants arriving in the country illegally or without a visa allowing for residency are subject to detention, applicants for refugee status increasingly had valid visas before they submitted their asylum applications. The Justice Ministry announced that in 2019, approximately 97 percent (10,073 of the 10,375 applicants) had legitimate visas, including as temporary visitors or temporary workers.
In 2019 the government granted humanitarian-based permission to stay to 37 applicants who were not given refugee status, including to some applicants who were not legally in the country. The remaining applicants were potentially subject to deportation but could re-apply for refugee status. According to the Justice Ministry, in 2019 there were 8,967 voluntary repatriations and 516 involuntary deportations. As of December 2019, 2,217 persons subject to deportation orders were allowed to live outside of immigration facilities; 942 persons under deportation orders were held in immigration detention facilities. There is no legal limit to the potential length of detention. In response to COVID-19, more detainees were permitted to stay outside the facilities to prevent the spread of infections, the justice minister stated.
In addition to the regular asylum application system, the government may accept refugees under a third-country refugee resettlement program. In April the government increased the cap on refugees accepted under this program from 30 to 60, which NGOs applauded, while continuing to voice concern about the low overall numbers of refugees accepted. COVID-19 related concerns delayed implementing the increase. Approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims were also living in the country under special stay permits on humanitarian grounds or temporary stay visas on the basis of ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. Fewer than 20 Rohingya have been granted refugee status; approximately the same number of Rohingya asylum-seekers are out of detention centers on temporary release but are not permitted to work and could be redetained.
The Ministry of Justice, the Federation of Bar Associations, and the NGO Forum for Refugees Japan continued to cooperate to implement the Alternatives to Detention project to provide accommodations, advice on living in the country, and legal services for individuals who arrived at Narita, Haneda, Chubu, and Kansai airports; received temporary landing or provisional stay permission; and sought refugee status. Government-subsidized civil organizations and donations fund the project. NGOs expressed concern about a lack of government statistics on the number of refugee applicants arriving at air and seaports since July 2018.
Freedom of Movement: Asylum applicants granted a residency permit may settle anywhere and travel in the country freely with conditions, including reporting their residence to authorities. Asylum-seekers in detention and under deportation orders may be granted provisional release from detention for illness, if the applicant was a trafficking victim, or in other circumstances as determined on an ad hoc basis by the Ministry of Justice. Provisional release does not provide a work permit and has several restrictions, including an obligation to appear monthly at the Immigration Bureau, report in advance any travel outside the prefecture in which she or he resides, and report any change of residence to the Immigration Office. The system of provisional release also requires a deposit that may amount to three million yen ($28,000) depending on the individual case. Arefugee or asylum-seekerwho does not follow the conditions may be returned to detention and the deposit is subject to confiscation. Lawyers noted that in recent cases those found working illegally were punished with a minimum of three years’ detention.
Persons granted refugee status may travel freely within the country, as well as abroad, contingent upon meeting certain requirements.
Employment: Applicants who have a valid visa at the time of their asylum application and whom authorities have determined may be recognized as refugees may apply for work permits within two months of, or eight months after, the date they were determined to qualify potentially as refugees. An individual must apply for permission to engage in income-earning activities before the visas expire. Individuals must have a work permit in order to work. In the interim before approval, the Refugee Assistance Headquarters, a section of the government-funded Foundation for the Welfare and Education of the Asian People, provided small stipends to some applicants who faced financial difficulties.
Persons granted refugee status have full employment rights.
Access to Basic Services: Excepting those who met right-to-work conditions, applicants for refugee status received limited social welfare benefits, not including health care. This status rendered them dependent on overcrowded government-funded shelters, illegal employment, government financial support, or NGO assistance.
Persons granted refugee status faced the same discrimination patterns often seen by other foreigners: reduced access to housing, education, and employment.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to 37 individuals in 2019 who may not qualify as refugees. Of the 37, 27 were married to Japanese citizens or their children were citizens. The remaining 10 were granted permission to stay on the basis of situations in their home countries, including seven individuals from Syria. They may live and work in the community.
By law a stateless person age 20 or older is qualified for naturalization when she or he has met certain criteria, including having lived in the country for at least five consecutive years, good conduct, and financial stability.
In January the Tokyo High Court ruled a deportation order for a stateless man who had been denied refugee status was invalid, adding, “it was obvious that the man would have had nowhere to go on this earth.” Further, the court acknowledged that he would not be able to build a life in his home country, Georgia, and declared the order was “defective.”
Japan-born children of ethnic Koreans who had their Japanese citizenship revoked following the end of Japanese colonial rule in Korea at the end of World War II are deemed foreign nationals. They do not have suffrage rights and may not hold positions in government service. Those who did not pledge allegiance to either South or North Korea following the division of the Korean Peninsula fall under the special category of “citizens of the Korean Peninsula (Korea or Chosen).” These Koreans, regarded as de facto stateless by legal experts, may opt to claim South Korean citizenship or to pursue Japanese citizenship. Although they hold no passports, these ethnic Koreans may travel overseas with temporary travel documents issued by the government.
Children born to Rohingya living in the country remain effectively stateless.