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.
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.
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.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity is not prohibited.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements and protects their rights to strike and bargain collectively.
The law places limitations on the right of public-sector workers and employees of state-owned enterprises to form and join unions of their choice. Public-sector employees may participate in public-service employee unions, which may negotiate collectively with their employers on wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Public-sector employees do not have the right to strike; trade union leaders who incite a strike in the public sector may be dismissed and fined or imprisoned. Firefighting personnel and prison officers are prohibited from organizing and collectively bargaining. While the government implemented a streamlined system for firefighting personnel to provide opinions and input to managerial staff in April, this system continues to deny the personnel the right to organize.
Workers in sectors providing essential services, including electric power generation and transmission, transportation and railways, telecommunications, medical care and public health, and the postal service, must give 10 days’ advance notice to authorities before organizing a strike. Employees involved in providing essential services do not have the right to collective bargaining.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities.
The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association, collective bargaining, and legal strikes. Government oversight and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations. In the case of a violation, a worker or union may lodge an objection with the Labor Committee, which may issue a relief order for action by the employer. A plaintiff may then take the matter to a civil court. If the court upholds the relief order and determines that a violation of that order has occurred, it may impose a fine, imprisonment, or both.
The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, but the increasing use of short-term contracts undermined regular employment and frustrated organizing efforts. Collective bargaining was common in the private sector.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.
Violations persisted and enforcement was lacking in some segments of the labor market, such as in sectors where foreign workers were employed. In general, however, the government enforced the law effectively. Legal penalties for forced labor varied depending on its form, the victim(s), and the law that prosecutors used to prosecute such offenses. Not all forms of forced or compulsory labor were clearly defined by law, nor did all of them carry sufficient penalties to deter violations. For example, the law criminalizes forced labor and prescribes penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but it also allows for fines in lieu of incarceration. NGOs argued that reliance on multiple and overlapping statutes hindered the government’s ability to identify and prosecute trafficking crimes, especially for cases involving forced labor with elements of psychological coercion.
Indicators of forced labor persisted in the manufacturing, construction, and shipbuilding sectors, primarily in small- and medium-size enterprises employing foreign nationals through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). This program allows foreign workers to enter the country and work for up to five years in a de facto guest worker program that many observers assessed to be rife with vulnerabilities to trafficking and other labor abuses.
Workers in these jobs experienced restrictions on freedom of movement and communication with persons outside the program, nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours, high debts to brokers in countries of origin, and retention of identity documents, despite government prohibitions on these practices. Workers were also sometimes subjected to “forced savings” that they forfeited by leaving early or being forcibly repatriated. For example, some technical interns reportedly paid up to one million yen ($9,200) in their home countries for jobs and were employed under contracts that mandated forfeiture of those funds to agents in their home country if workers attempted to leave, both of which are illegal under the TITP. The Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT) oversees the TITP program, including conducting on-site inspections of TITP workplaces. OTIT increased its workforce, including hiring new inspectors, but labor organizations continued to cite concerns that OTIT is understaffed, insufficiently accessible to persons who do not speak Japanese, and ineffective at prosecuting labor abuse cases.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Children ages 15 to 18 may perform any job not designated as dangerous or harmful, such as handling heavy objects or cleaning, inspecting, or repairing machinery while in operation. They are also prohibited from working late night shifts. Children ages 13 to 15 years may perform “light labor” only, and children younger than age 13 may work only in the entertainment industry.
The government effectively enforced these laws. Penalties for child labor violations included fines and imprisonment and were sufficient to deter violations.
Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, or language.
The law prohibits gender-based discrimination in certain circumstances, including recruitment, promotion, training, and renewal of contracts, but it does not address mandatory dress codes.
The law also mandates equal pay for men and women; however, the International Labor Organization noted the law’s protection against such wage discrimination is too limited because it does not capture the concept of “work of equal value.” Enforcement regulations of the equal employment opportunity law also include prohibitions against policies or practices that were adopted not with discriminatory intent but which have a discriminatory effect (called “indirect discrimination” in law) for all workers in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and changes of job type. Women, however, continued to express concern about unequal treatment in the workforce, including sexual and pregnancy harassment. Women’s average monthly wage was approximately 73 percent of that of men in 2018.
The law included provisions to obligate employers to treat regular and nonregular workers equally when 1) the job contents are the same and 2) the scope of expected changes to the job content and work location are the same. The labor law revisions related to equal pay for equal work go into effect in April 2020 for large companies and in 2021 for small and medium enterprises (SME).
The women’s empowerment law requires national and local governments, as well as private-sector companies that employ at least 301 persons, to analyze women’s employment in their organizations and release action plans to promote women’s participation and advancement. Revisions to this law passed in May, which expand the reporting requirements to SMEs that employ at least 101 persons and increase the number of disclosure items, go into effect in 2021.
In response to government agencies overstating the number of their employees with disabilities to meet statutory hiring requirements in 2018, the government revised the law in June. The revisions included new preventive provisions, including a requirement for verification of disability certificates to ensure the job candidate’s disability. In August the MHLW released its statistics showing nearly 40 percent of government institutions missed hiring targets for persons with disabilities. The law mandates that both government and private companies hire at or above a designated minimum proportion of persons with disabilities (including mental disabilities). The law requires a minimum hiring rate for the government to be 2.5 percent and for private companies to be 2.2 percent. By law companies with more than 100 employees that do not comply with requirements to hire minimum proportions of persons with disabilities must pay a fine per vacant position per month. There is no penalty for government entities failing to meet the legal minimum hiring ratio for persons with disabilities. Disability rights advocates claimed that some companies preferred to pay the mandated fine rather than hire persons with disabilities.
In cases of violation of law on equal employment opportunity, the MHLW may request the employer report the matter, and the ministry may issue advice, instructions, or corrective guidance. If the employer does not follow the ministry’s guidance, the employer’s name may be publicly disclosed. If the employer fails to report or files a false report, the employer may be subject to a fine. Government hotlines in prefectural labor bureau equal employment departments handled consultations concerning sexual harassment and mediated disputes when possible.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law establishes a minimum wage, which varies by prefecture and allows for earnings above the official poverty line.
The law provides for a 40-hour workweek for most industries and, with exceptions, limits the number of overtime hours permitted in a fixed period. It mandates premium pay of no less than 25 percent for more than eight hours of work in a day, up to 45 overtime hours per month. For overtime of between 45 and 60 hours per month, the law requires companies to “make efforts” to furnish premium pay greater than 25 percent. It mandates premium pay of at least 50 percent for overtime that exceeds 60 hours a month. The grace period for SMEs exempting them from paying 50 percent for overtime that exceeds 60 hours a month will be abolished in April 2023.
For large companies the law caps overtime work and subjects violators to penalties including fines and imprisonment, conditions that will be extended to SMEs in 2020. In principle overtime work will be permitted only up to 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year. Even in the case of special and temporary circumstances, it must be limited to less than 720 hours per year and 100 hours per month (including holiday work), and the average hours of overtime work over a period of more than two months must be less than 80 hours (including holiday work). The law also includes provisions to introduce the Highly Professional System (a white-collar exemption), which would eliminate the requirement to pay any overtime (including premium pay for holiday work or late-night work) for a small number of highly skilled professionals earning an annual salary of more than approximately 10 million yen ($92,000). Labor unions continued to criticize the government for failing to enforce the law regarding maximum working hours; workers, including those in government jobs, routinely exceeded the hours outlined in the law.
The government sets occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The MHLW is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations governing wages, hours, and safety and health standards in most industries. The National Personnel Authority covers government officials. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry covers OSH standards for mining, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism is responsible for OSH standards in the maritime industry.
The law provides for a fine for employers who fail to pay a minimum wage, regardless of the number of employees involved or the duration of the violation, and provides for fines for employers who fail to comply with applicable OSH laws.
Penalties for OSH violations included fines and imprisonment and were generally sufficient to deter violations. While inspectors have the authority to suspend unsafe operations immediately in cases of flagrant safety violations, in lesser cases they may provide nonbinding guidance. MHLW officials acknowledged their resources were inadequate to oversee more than 4.3 million firms and that the number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations.
Reports of OSH violations in the TITP were common, including injuries due to unsafe equipment and insufficient training, nonpayment of wages and overtime compensation, excessive and often spurious salary deductions, forced repatriation, and substandard living conditions (also see section 7.b.).
Falls, road traffic accidents, and injuries caused by heavy machinery were the most common causes of workplace fatalities. The MHLW also continued to grant formal recognition to victims of karoshi (death by overwork). Their former employers and the government paid compensation to family members when conditions were met.
In May the Diet passed a set of labor law revisions requiring companies to take preventive measures for power harassment in the workplace and creating additional requirements for companies to prevent sexual harassment. The revisions go into effect in April 2020, making it mandatory for large companies and an “obligation to make efforts” for SMEs.