Japan has a parliamentary government with a constitutional monarchy. Shinzo Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, became prime minister in 2012. Upper house elections in July, which Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, the Komeito Party, won with a solid majority, were considered free and fair.
The National Public Safety Commission, a cabinet-level entity, oversees the National Police Agency (NPA), and prefectural public safety commissions have responsibility for local police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
There were concerns that some laws and practices, if misused, could infringe on freedom of the press.
The government enforced laws prohibiting human rights abuses and prosecuted officials who committed them.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these freedoms. The independent press and a functioning democratic political system sustained freedom of expression in the reporting year.
Freedom of Expression: Despite a law addressing hate speech, the government neither penalizes nor prohibits it. While there was a decrease in hate speech at demonstrations, it increased in propaganda, election campaigning, and online. Hate crimes also increased.
In response some prefectures and municipalities have taken action. In April an ordinance went into effect in Tokyo restricting the use of parks and other public facilities for potential hate rallies or other hate speech events, requiring universities and other businesses in its jurisdiction to make efforts to eliminate unjust discrimination and requiring the municipality to take measures to prevent the spread of certain hate speech on the internet following a consultation with a review board to avoid restricting legitimate acts of expression. The ordinance was modeled after similar ones in Osaka and Kawasaki. Some legal, journalist, and political groups expressed concerns that the ordinance is too vague and could suppress freedom of speech. In December the City of Kawasaki enacted an ordinance that bans discriminatory language and actions against foreign persons in public places in the city, for which repeat offenders are subject to a fine of up to 500,000 yen ($4,600).
In July the Tokyo District Court provisionally decided to prohibit a figure, as yet unnamed, known for making anti-Korean hate speeches, from organizing an anti-Korea demonstration within a 550-yard radius of the North Korea-affiliated Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School, press reported.
According to legal experts and NGOs, hate speech and hate crimes against ethnic Koreans were particularly prominent and numerous, but also were directed at other racial and ethnic minorities. In August a Korean resident filed a human rights complaint against a professor at a Tokyo-based university based on the city’s newly enacted ordinance banning ethnic discrimination. The professor was accused of repeatedly using hate speech against Koreans in class and online.
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 fine of not more than five million yen ($46,000).
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.
During the year the government barred two journalists from travelling abroad. In February Kosuke Tsuneoka was denied boarding on a flight to Yemen, via Oman, and told his passport had been revoked. In July the Foreign Ministry denied a passport to Jumpei Yasuda, who planned to travel to India and Europe. In both cases, officials cited legal provisions enabling the Foreign Ministry to deny passports if the holder is not permitted to enter a destination country. Tsuneoka was banned from entering Oman; Yasuda was barred from Turkey, although that country was not on his travel plans. The law also allows denial of a passport if the planned travel could harm the country’s national interest, but the government did not cite that provision in its statements. Numerous domestic and internal observers and groups criticized these actions.
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.
Despite the constitutional right to freedom of expression, in August the governor of Aichi Prefecture shut down, after three days, a section titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression’” of an art festival in Nagoya. The section was intended to celebrate freedom of expression by featuring works that had previously been excluded or removed from exhibition in Japan or elsewhere. The exhibit featured a statue symbolizing an estimated 20,000 wartime sex slaves or “comfort women” and was closed three days after the opening of the festival, one of the country’s biggest international art festivals. While the governor cited safety concerns as the reason for the closing, the mayor of Nagoya publicly stated that he wanted the exhibit closed because it “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens,” that freedom of expression “is not freedom where people can do whatever they want to,” and that with public funds supporting the festival, “freedom of expression has a certain limit.” The exhibit was ultimately reopened for the final two weeks of the 75-day festival, but organizers were notified they would not receive a state subsidy, in part because organizers did not notify the Cultural Affairs Agency in advance that the exhibit could trigger an outcry that might affect the event’s operation.
The Ministry of Education’s 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.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government generally provided adequate shelter and other protective services in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant disaster in in the northeastern part of the country and sought to provide permanent relocation or reconstruction options. As of March, 3,418 persons were still living in temporary housing.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Most applicants for refugee status had legal residential status when they submitted their asylum applications. Many of the applicants who were not legally in the country were housed indefinitely and sometimes for prolonged periods in immigration detention facilities. There is no limit to the potential length of detention. NGOs reported that foreign nationals dying in those facilities was a significant concern. Civil society groups said the indefinite detention of asylum seekers was itself a problem and also expressed concerns about poor living conditions. Legal experts and UNHCR noted that due to lengthy detentions, detainees were protesting their conditions and engaging in hunger strikes; the latter were intended to create a health concern that would warrant medical release.
On June 24, a Nigerian detainee under deportation order died at the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki. The Immigration Services Agency, under the Justice Ministry, investigated the death but did not publicize the cause. On August 8, the JFBA stated that the man, the father of a Japanese child, was at the time of his death on a hunger strike at the detention facility to protest his three years and seven months in detention. The JFBA called on the independent inspection committee on immigration detention facilities to investigate his death and publicize its findings. In October the Immigration Services Agency proposed measures to improve counseling, medical treatment, and information sharing by detention workers.
As of September, 198 detainees were on hunger strike across the country.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The country’s refugee screening process was, however, strict; in 2018, 42 asylum applications (vice 20 in 2017) were approved out of 10,493 applications. NGOs and UNHCR expressed concern about the low rate of approval (0.25 percent). Civil society groups said that more restrictive screening procedures implemented in 2018 resulted in the voluntary withdrawal of an additional 2,923 applications. NGOs noted the broadening of categories of individuals who could be granted asylum, citing one case in which the recipient was facing persecution in his or her home country as an LGBTI individual.
Forty foreign nationals not recognized as refugees were also admitted under humanitarian considerations.
In addition to the regular asylum application system, the government may accept other refugees under a pilot refugee resettlement program that began in 2010. On September 25, as part of the program, the government accepted 20 Syrian refugees from six families who had been staying temporarily in Malaysia. The government capped refugees from Burma at 30 a year within the pilot program. Approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims were 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. Only 18 Rohingya asylum seekers have been granted refugee status.
Refugee and asylum applicants who are minors or applicants with disabilities may ask lawyers to participate in their first round of hearings before refugee examiners. 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 those applicants who could not afford it.
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 (ATD) project to provide accommodations, casework, 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 ATD project. An NGO reported a significant decrease in the number of refugee applicants at air and sea ports, to 12 from January through June 2018 from 133 in 2017.
Freedom of Movement: A refugee or asylum seeker may be granted a provisional release from detention with several restrictions. Under provisional release, the foreigner must appear at the Immigration Bureau once a month, stay within the prefecture in which he or she resides, and report any change of residence to the Immigration Office. The system of provisional release requires a deposit that may amount up to three million yen ($27,600) depending on the individual case. If the refugee or asylum seeker does not follow the requirements of provisional release, their deposit is subject to confiscation. Lawyers noted that those found working illegally are punished with a minimum of three years of detention.
Employment: Applicants for refugee status normally may not work unless they have valid short-term visas. They must apply for permission to engage in income-earning activities before the visas expire. 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.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees continued to face the same discrimination patterns often seen by other foreigners: reduced access to housing, education, and employment. Except for those who met right-to-work conditions, individuals whose refugee applications were pending or on appeal did not have the right to receive social welfare. This status rendered them dependent on overcrowded government shelters, illegal employment, or NGO assistance.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to 40 individuals in 2018 who may not qualify as refugees.
Japan-born children of the approximately 70,000 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 also deemed foreign nationals due to a law that bases nationality on strict blood lineage. While they could opt for South or North Korean citizenship or to pursue Japanese citizenship, many have not done so and are effectively stateless. While they hold no passports, these ethnic Koreans may travel overseas with temporary travel documents issued by the Japanese government. They experience restrictions related to voting and holding public service positions.
Children born to Rohingya living in the country remain stateless.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were documented cases of corruption by officials.
Independent academic experts stated that ties among politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspersons were close, and corruption remained a concern. NGOs continued to criticize the practice of retired senior public servants taking high-paying jobs with private firms that relied on government contracts. There were investigations into financial and accounting irregularities involving government officials.
Corruption: Media reported on several convictions related to corruption. In September it was made public that the former deputy mayor of Fukui Prefecture’s Takahama, which hosts a Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) nuclear power plant, paid KEPCO’s president, chairman, and other executives 320 million yen ($2.95 million) in money and goods over a seven-year period beginning in 2011 in return for receiving at least 2.5 billion yen ($23 million) worth of nuclear plant-related work orders for a local construction company. In August a Diet member and parliamentary vice minister at the Ministry for Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW), resigned his ministry position following allegations he planned to accept bribes for pressuring the Ministry of Justice to expedite issuance of visas for foreign workers. The accused individual denied he had done anything illegal and kept his Diet seat.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires members of the Diet to disclose publicly their income and assets (except for ordinary savings), including ownership of real estate, securities, and transportation means. Local ordinances require governors of all 47 prefectures, prefectural assembly members, mayors, and assembly members of 20 major cities to disclose their incomes and assets; assembly members of the remaining approximately 1,720 municipalities are not required to do the same. There are no penalties for false disclosure. The law does not apply to unelected officials. Separately, a cabinet code provides that cabinet ministers, senior vice-ministers, and parliamentary vice-ministers publicly disclose their, their spouses’, and their dependent children’s assets.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were usually cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Counseling Office has more than 300 offices across the country. Approximately 14,000 volunteers fielded questions in person, by telephone, or on the internet, and provided confidential consultations. Counselling in any of six foreign languages was available in 50 offices. These consultative offices fielded queries, but they do not have authority to investigate human rights violations by individuals or public organizations, provide counsel, or mediate. Municipal governments have human rights offices that deal with a range of human rights problems.