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Japan Table of Contents


Human Rights

Compared with most of its Asian neighbors and countries in most other parts of the world, Japan's record on human rights is commendable, if not exemplary. With some important exceptions, most observers consider informal social pressures a greater factor in limiting individual freedom than the coercive actions of the authorities. The ancient Japanese adage that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down" captures the sense that Japanese people are pressured more to conform than are people in the more "individualistic" societies of the West. Some Japanese lower- and upper-secondary schools, for example, have adopted extremely strict dress codes, determining not only apparel but also the length of hair to the exact centimeter. Although defended by conservative educators as a way of cultivating discipline and self-control, these codes have been widely criticized as violations of students' rights. In another example, shopkeepers and local community groups throughout Japan canceled sales promotions and festivals in the wake of Emperor Hirohito's illness in late 1988, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. This self-restraint cost them billions of yen.

Although freedom of expression was, for the most part, respected, certain matters--particularly those relating to the emperor--were widely considered taboo subjects for public figures. Nagasaki's mayor, Motoshima Hitoshi, a member of the LDP, said in December 1988 that Hirohito bore some responsibility for World War II. Motoshima was later ostracized by influential, mainstream politicians, his life was threatened on several occasions, and in January 1990 he was seriously wounded outside his office by a right-wing extremist. Despite the comments about his father, Emperor Akihito visited Motoshima after the attempt on his life.

Although Article 14 guarantees sexual equality, women faced systematic discrimination in the workplace. They were generally expected to quit work after getting married or having children. However, the number of lifelong career women grew steadily during the 1980s and early 1990s. The Diet's passage of the Law for Equal Opportunity in Employment for Men and Women in 1985 was of some help in securing women's rights, even though the law was a "guideline" and entailed no legal penalties for employers who discriminated. The law has, however, been used by women in several court cases seeking equal treatment in such areas as retirement age (see Gender Stratification and the Lives of Women , ch. 2).

Human rights have also become an issue because of the police practice of obtaining confessions from criminal suspects. Although torture is rarely reported, suspects are placed under tremendous psychological and physical pressures to confess. In several cases, the courts have acknowledged that confessions were forced and ordered prisoners released (see The Criminal Justice System , ch. 8).

The greatest controversy concerning human rights, however, focuses on the social and legal treatment of minorities. Although the Japanese consider themselves to be a homogeneous people, minorities do exist, and they often have suffer severe discrimination. The largest group are the 2 million to 4 million hisabetsu buraku ("discriminated communities") descendants of the outcast communities of feudal Japan. Other minorities, including the Ainu, indigenous inhabitants of northern Japan; the people of Okinawa; and ethnic Koreans, have suffered discrimination as well, (see Minorities , ch. 2).

Data as of January 1994