Global Issues: Japan/Human Rights

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Today, Japan’s position on the world stage is one of respect, honor and influence. Certainly when one looks closely at Japan’s contributions to the international community as well as other distinguishing factor such as their pacifist constitution, one can see that Japan is positioned quite well as a world power. Indeed they are positioned to be a model for the world in many ways (i.e. Article 9 of Japanese Constitution, a pacifist / diplomatic approach to managing international conflict, environmental protectionism, peace philosophy, human right preservation, etc.).

The intent of this essay is to examine how Japan manages it’s past and present human rights challenges. To fully understand Japan’s challenges, successes and advances in the area of human rights, one must examine Japan’s disturbing human rights history. No conversation about human rights issues in Japan would be meaningful without exploring what is undoubtedly a significant blemish on Japan’s human right’s report card. That is, the issue of Japanese war crime committed during WWII. The infamous Japanese war crimes include such atrocities as Bushido-style killings where Japanese soldiers competed to see who could kill the most people, the murder and maltreatment of Allied POW and civilian internees, chemical warfare and genocidal campaigns against the Chinese. Other atrocities include the well known, but controversial, Nanking Massacre where 300,000 people were killed in the most gruesome ways and 20,000 women were raped by Japanese soldiers. Atrocities committed at Nanking include mass executions, torture, rape, looting, bushido, burned to death, drowning, buried alive, boiled alive, heart cut out, arms and legs cut off, tong cut off, eyes gauged out, decapitation, mutilation of vagina, castration, nailing people to boards, cannibalism, throwing babies up and bayoneting it, etc. (MFA Productions, 2007).

Another well known war crime was the creation of Unit 731 who conducted gruesome experiments on prisoners near the Chinese city of Harbin. It is estimated that 200,000 Chinese were tortured to death between 1946-1948. The Japanese government is known also for the infamous “Three All” campaign where the Japanese Emperor ordered Japanese soldiers to “Kill All, Burn All and Loot All” and for the forced enslavement and prostitution of approximately 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Taiwanese women, “comfort women” (MFA Productions, 2007).

Although Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has extended a formal apology to all identifiable victims of forced prostitution (i.e. “comfort women”) of WWII as well as compensation, according to the 2008 Human Rights Watch Report, the UN Human Rights Council and numerous NGOs, including Amnesty International and Vital Voices, have criticized the country’s apology.

Japan’s present-day human rights issues tend to center around a number of critical issues that have historically been challenging for the country to address. Those issues are: the treatment of it’s racial minority groups, issues regarding equality and woman’s rights, and addressing the historical problem of human trafficking in Japan.

Racial discrimination and xenophobia do exist in Japan. The law prohibits discrimination on basis of race, gender, disability, language, and social status. Although the government generally enforced these provisions, discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and foreigners remained (Bureau of Democracy, 2009). The effects of discrimination are felt be many racial and minority groups in Japan including the Buraku people, the Ainu, the people of Okinawa, people from former Japanese colonies such as the Koreans, Chinese, and their descendants, other foreigners, and migrant workers who have come from all over Asia (IMADR, 2009). While there are laws that prohibit racial discrimination, the country’s large populations of Korean, Chinese, and Filipino residents were subject to deeply entrenched societal discrimination (Bureau of Democracy, 2009). This discrimination often takes the form of restricted access to housing, education, and employment opportunities. The Human Rights Watch Report also cited a widespread perception among citizens that these Japan born ethnic “foreigners” were responsible for most of the crimes committed in Japan. This misperception persists despite empirical data presented by the Ministry of Justice showing that crimes committed by “foreigners” was statistically lower than the crime rates of Japanese citizens. Indigenous peoples such as the Ainu and Okinawans faced the same patterns of discrimination as other ethnic minorities (McNeil, 2006).

Japan is also charged with protecting and preserving the human rights of Japanese women. With respect to the various issues surrounding woman’s rights, Japan has generally provided women with the same rights as men. However, despite these efforts problems persist. The law criminalizes all forms of rape, including spousal rape. Although the number of reported rape cases were significantly less than those reported in 2007, there were still 747 reported rape cases during the first half or 2008 (Bureau of Democracy, 2009).

Domestic violence against woman and sexual harassment in the workplace remained problems as well. In 2007, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare received 15,799 reports of sexual harassment. Laws protecting women from sexual harassment include measures to identify companies that failed to prevent sexual harassment, but does not include tangible, punitive measures to enforce compliance other than publicizing the names of offending companies (MHLW, 2009). Additionally, women in Japan continue to encounter discrimination in employment with women earning less than two thirds of the monthly salary earned by men (MHLW, 2009).

The groping of women in public, particularly in subway cars, continues to be a problem as well. In Japan, more than 4,000 men are arrested each year for groping on public transport (Herbert, 2004). This prompted a number of government interventions such as police crackdowns, increased police presence in subway cars, and the introduction of “women only” carriages during peak hours.

Japan has laws that establish human tracking for sexual and/or labor exploitation as a criminal offense. However, human trafficking remains a human rights issue for the country as Japan continues to be a destination and transit country for men, women, and children who are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and other purposes (Bureau of Democracy, 2009). Debt bondage and labor exploitation was widely reported by labor activists, NGOs, shelters and the media (MHLW, 2009). Additionally, there was no noticeable improvement in Japan’s prosecution of sex trafficking crimes.

The focus of this essay has been largely on the issues of human rights issues impacting Japan’s women and minority populations. However, one must acknowledge that Japan has broader human rights issues such as the treatment of prisoners in prisons and detention centers and preserving the rights of children and people with disabilities just to name a few.

While the focus of this essay has to been to identify Japan’s past and present human rights challenges, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Japan has made immense progress in addressing human rights issues. It is also very important to note that Japan has contributed significant time, dollars and diplomatic effort to supporting human rights and humanitarian issues domestically as well as internationally. As stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, below are some of Japan’s domestic and international commitments to protecting and preserving human rights:

• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1985) • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1995) • Introduced the Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society (1999) • Introduced the Second Basic Plan for Gender Equality (2005) • Revised the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (2007) • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007) • Officially became a State Party of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2007) • Japan has pledged to cooperate fully with all established treaties • Japan has pledged to work closely with civil society including non-governmental organizations in the promotion, implementation and protection of human rights programs

Clearly, Japan has demonstrated a concern for the human rights of national and international citizens. Additionally, Japan has made significant commitments and progress towards that end. As stated earlier in this essay, Japan’s history of human rights violations during WWII is a huge stumbling block to get over. However, to be fair, one must remember that it is an unfortunate truth that every great nation has had to acknowledge and overcome the past atrocities and injustices of their forefathers to evolve into world powers that are conscious and committed to the promotion and preservation of national and international human rights.


1) True or False: According to this essay, Japan is positioned well to be an influential world power and a model for it's position on human rights.

2) All of the following are examples of blemishes on Japan’s human right’s report card except:

  a) Bushido-style killings
  b) Article 9
  c) Nanking Massacre
  d) genocidal campaigns against the Chinese
  e) Three All campaign

3) According to this essay, Japan’s present-day human rights issues include all of the following except:

  a) racial & minority group discrimination
  b) equality and women’s rights
  c) human trafficking
  d) child labor
  e) labor exploitation

4) True or False: The compliance laws created to protect women from sexual harassment are sufficient.

5) Advances in Japan's domestic and international commitments to protecting and preserving human rights include which of the following:

  a) cooperate fully with all established treaties
  b) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  c) Equal Employment Opportunity Law
  d) Basic Law for a Gender-equal Society
  e) All of the above


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor 2009. 2008 Human Rights Report: Japan, viewed May 27, 2009, Herbert, Jack, 2004. ‘Chikan (Train Groping)’, Japan for the Uninvited, viewed June 28, 2009 Human Rights in Japan. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved May 19, 2009, from International Movement Against All Forms of Discriminations and Racism (IMADR). ‘Combating racial discrimination in Japan’, viewed May 28, 2009 Japanese War Crimes. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved May 19, 2009, from McNeill, David 2006, ‘The Diene Report on Discrimination and Racism in Japan’, ZNet

    The Spirit of Resistance Lives,

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2008. Japan's Voluntary Pledges and Commitments in Accordance with Resolution A/RES/60/251. Retrieved May 28, 2009, from Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare 2009. ‘Labour Statistics’, viewed June 28, 2009

MFA Productions 2007, Japanese War Crimes, World War II Multimedia Database,

       viewed June 28, 2009