Freedom in the World
Tainted by scandals and an inability to deliver on some of his campaign promises, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June 2010 after less than a year in office. Former Finance Minister Naoto Kan, who succeeded Hatoyama, saw his approval ratings drop over a proposed tax increase, which contributed to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s disappointing results in July legislative elections. Meanwhile, the Kan government faced challenges over the continuing economic recession and a worsening in Sino-Japanese relations following a collision between Japanese and Chinese vessels near the disputed Senkaku/Diayu Islands.
Japan has operated as a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic monarchy since its defeat in World War II. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presided over Japan’s economic ascent while maintaining close security ties with the United States during the Cold War. The so-called iron triangle—the close relationship between the LDP, the banks, and big-business representatives—was a key factor behind Japan’s economic success. The LDP government mandated that corporations, specifically construction firms in charge of major public-works projects, rely on banks for capital, and the banks in turn took large equity stakes in the companies. Over time, companies engaged in politically expedient but financially unviable projects in order to reap government rewards. The iron triangle became a major source of corruption in the government. The economy ran into trouble in the early 1990s, following a collapse in the stock and real-estate markets, but slowly returned to a healthy state in 2002.
Shinzo Abe became prime minister in 2006, though his tenure was marred by repeated scandals and political gaffes. Five of his ministers resigned in disgrace, and his agriculture minister committed suicide following revelations about questionable expenses. Abe stepped down in September 2007 after losing control of the legislature’s upper chamber in the July elections to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Yasuo Fukuda, who succeeded Abe as the head of the LDP and prime minister, failed to rally support and govern effectively, and he resigned in September 2008. Former foreign minister Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, succeeded him later that month. The Aso government focused on rejuvenating the faltering economy, which remained burdened with a government debt equal to almost 200 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The LDP’s nearly 55-year dominance in the legislature’s lower chamber ended when the DPJ captured 308 seats in the August 2009 elections. The DPJ formed a coalition with two smaller parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, and Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister. The DPJ’s platform challenged many of the LDP’s long-standing policies, including greater independence from U.S. influence, improved relations with neighboring Asian countries, and a more decentralized and accountable government concerned with social welfare and environmental issues.
However, Hatoyama was unable to implement some of his campaign promises, in part due to the country’s economic recession. In addition, increased regional tensions following the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March 2010, allegedly by a North Korean torpedo, led Hatoyama to shift his foreign policy focus back to the United States for security guarantees. Hatoyama announced his resignation on June 2, citing a financial scandal involving DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa, as well as a broken promise to close the controversial U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa. Hatoyama’s entire cabinet stepped down two days later.
On June 4, Finance Minister Naoto Kan was chosen prime minister, though his approval ratings plummeted after he proposed raising the country’s sales tax from 5 percent to 10 percent. Following this unpopular move, the DPJ captured only 44 of the 121 seats at stake in the July elections to the legislature’s upper chamber, while a coalition of the LDP and two smaller parties took 61 seats.
Despite predictions of another power transition, Kan defeated Ozawa in a September contest for leadership of the DPJ. However, Kan faced significant domestic and international challenges throughout the rest of the year. Although the Kan government intervened in the country’s currency market in mid-September to curb appreciation of the yen, the value of the yen continued to rise, halting Japan’s economic recovery. Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese relations were strained following the arrest and detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler that had collided with two Japanese coast guard boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The captain was held in custody for 17 days, despite intense protests from the Chinese government, which retaliated by halting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Japan is an electoral democracy. The prime minister—the leader of the majority party or coalition in the bicameral legislature’s (Diet’s) lower chamber, the House of Representatives—serves as head of government. Members of the 480-seat House of Representatives serve four-year terms; 300 are elected in single-member constituencies and 180 are elected by party list in 11 regional districts. The 242-seat upper chamber, the House of Councilors, consists of 146 members elected in multiseat constituencies and 96 elected by national party list; members serve six-year terms, with half facing election every three years. Emperor Akihito serves as the ceremonial head of state.
Although several political parties compete for power, the center-right LDP dominated for almost 55 years. The DPJ’s victory in the August 2009 elections to the House of Representatives opened the way for the development of a two-party system.
Significant reform efforts have focused on battling corruption stemming from the iron triangle system, mostly by loosening ties between the government and big business. Although Japan is a signatory of the U.N. Convention against Corruption, the Diet has not yet ratified it into law. Japan was ranked 17 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Japan’s press is private and independent, but the presence of press clubs, or kisha kurabu, even under the more liberal DPJ, continues to be an obstacle to press freedom. Press clubs ensure homogeneity of news coverage by fostering close relationships between the major media and bureaucrats and politicians. Government officials often give club members exclusive access to political information, leading journalists to avoid writing critical stories about the government and reducing the media’s ability to pressure politicians for greater transparency and accountability. In August 2010, the justice ministry granted Japanese media access to an execution chamber in a Tokyo jail for the first time. Justice Minister Keiko Chiba had authorized the visit in an effort to stir public debate on capital punishment, which continues to be widely supported across the country. Internet access is not restricted.
Japanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious groups are not required to be licensed, but registering with government authorities as a “religious corporation” brings tax benefits and other advantages. There are no restrictions on academic freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association. The political culture in Japan is strong, and there are active civic, human rights, social welfare, and environmental groups. In April 2010, nearly 6,000 people gathered to protest relocating the Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa. Later that same month, a second protest over the possible relocation attracted more than 90,000 people, ultimately contributing to Yukio Hatoyama’s resignation. Trade unions are independent, and with the exception of police and firefighters, all unionized workers have the right to strike.
Japan’s judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects are generally given fair public trials by an impartial tribunal (there are no juries) within three months of being detained. The National Police Agency is under civilian control and is highly disciplined, though reports of human rights abuses committed by police persist. While arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are not practiced, there is potential for abuse due to a law that allows the police to detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge in order to extract confessions. Prison conditions comply with international standards, although prison officials have been known to use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions. The Penal Facilities and Treatment of Prisoners Law provides for a monitoring body to inspect prisons, access to the outside world for prisoners, and human rights education for prison staff.
Although the constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status, certain groups continue to face unofficial discrimination. Japan’s three million burakumin—descendants of feudal-era outcasts—and the indigenous Ainu minority suffer from entrenched societal discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to housing and employment opportunities. Foreigners generally, and Koreans in particular, suffer similar disadvantages. The exploitation of foreign workers gained attention in July 2010, when a Japanese court ruled that the 2008 death of Chinese industrial trainee Jiang Xiaodong was due to karoshi (death from overwork). Amendments to the Immigration Control Act to improve protections for foreign workers were subsequently adopted.
Although women in Japan enjoy legal equality, discrimination in employment and sexual harassment on the job are common. Violence against women often goes unreported due to concerns about family reputation and other social mores. While prostitution remains illegal, it is widespread. Japanese courts continue to hold a no-compensation policy towards comfort women—World War II–era sex slaves—despite international pressure to provide reparations. Japan is primarily a destination country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation.