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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date June 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Overview, June 2008, available at: [accessed 8 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated June 2008


Japan is an island-state located in the Pacific Ocean to the east of China, Korea and Russia. With some 128 million people, it has the world's tenth largest population. Its relative geographic isolation explains the country's relative – though not complete – ethnic homogeneity, with its northern (Hokkaido) and southern (Ryūkyū Islands, including Okinawa) extremities the home of Japan's own distinctive national minorities.


Main languages: Japanese, Ryūkyūan, Korean, Chinese, Ainu

Main religions: Shintoism and Buddhism, also Protestantism and Roman Catholicism

Minority groups include Burakumin (no reliable figures available: between 1,163,372 (Source: General Affairs Agency, 1985) to 3 million) (Source: Buraku Liberation League, 2007), Okinawans (1,200,000) (Source: Yukio Uemora, 2000), Koreans (901,284, of which 515570 were permanent residents) (Source: Immigration Bureau of Japan, 2005), Chinese (500,000) (Source: Ministry of Justice of Japan, 2005), and Ainu (no reliable figures available: between 24, 381 (Source: Hokkaido Government Survey, 1984) and 50,000 (Source: Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, 2006).


For Japan's minorities, the period of reform and modernisation that occurred during the Meiji era (1868-1912) also saw some of the most momentous developments for their status. For the Ainu, it meant the formal incorporation of their land which was formally renamed Hokkaido, and the extinguishment of traditional Ainu ownership of land offered to Japanese settlers, who colonized the Ainumoshiri (Land of the Ainu), with the result that the indigenous Ainu became a minority. Its subsequent wars and conquests during this era brought it to control Korea, Taiwan and the southern half of Sakhalin, events which to this day explain the origins of some of the country's other minorities. It is also during this period that the Ryūkyū Kingdom was formally annexed to Japan.

Japan's defeat at the end of the Second World War saw its emergence as a democracy with a liberal constitution in 1947 which, while containing a number of traditional Western rights and guarantees, has no specific provision in relation to the rights of its minorities and indigenous peoples. Article 14 of the Constitution does prohibit discrimination, though its wording and scope appear somewhat limited as it is not a general prohibition of discrimination, but one which only applies 'in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin'.


Japan is to all appearances a highly developed democracy with the world's second largest economy. But despite its liberal constitution, minorities and indigenous peoples are for the most part ignored in Japan's constitutional and legislative framework, a reflection of the long-standing popular perception of Japan as a mono-ethnic state. That Japan is only made up of 'ethnic Japanese' (the Yamato people) has been until recently the prominent view within much of Japanese society, sometimes leaning dangerously towards a belief that this is part of the country's key to stability and economic success. It explains also the infamous 1986 statement by the Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone its successful was due to not having ethnic minorities. This also explains why authorities have responded decades sooner to the claims of the Burakumin – a caste rather than an ethnic minority, and thus considered to be 'Japanese'.

The absence of comprehensive human rights legislation, including against discrimination by public and private parties in particular is a problem for many minorities and indigenous peoples, as such legislation is quite often one of the few effective ways to assert and protect their rights and interests. International criticisms of this lacuna and increasing efforts and pressure from minority groups and civil society have contributed to a number of attempts after 2002 to have the Diet to enact human rights legislation. All of these failed to receive the necessary level of support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The position of more recent migrants in society represents another issue which is often debated in Japan, as it faces an aging and even declining population, but legislation in areas such as the right to vote for permanent residents and the acquisition of citizenship remain largely unresponsive.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Despite the widely held view that Japanese society is homogeneous, Japan nevertheless has significant numbers of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities. In addition to those that could be described as traditional or national minorities and indigenous peoples such as the Buraku people (or Burakumin), the Ainu people and Okinawans, there are two other broad categories: those originally from neighbouring countries such as Korea and China who have a fairly long-standing presence in the country, and newer minorities of migrants mainly from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Despite high hopes following a 1997 court ruling and subsequent legislation passed by the Diet to develop programmes for the promotion of Ainu culture and traditions, further positive developments were slow to emerge. International organizations called on Japan to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries in order to provide clear recognition for the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people (Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Japan, March 2001). Japan joined 143 other countries in the UN General Assembly to support the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, but failed to recognize the Ainu as indigenous. However, ahead of a G-8 summit in the Ainu's Hokkaido homeland, in June 2008 the Diet finally passed legislation to recognize the Ainu as 'an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture.' Members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination also noted that the Okinawans could be considered a minority, and that information on their situation should be submitted by the Japanese government in the future.

An addendum to the 2006 report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on his mission to Japan was highly critical of the continuing problems of discrimination and racism which still permeates many aspects of everyday life in Japanese society.

There is also in Japan a large number of religious minorities, with no reports of repression or oppressive measures against them. The only issues that have remained involving religious minorities during this period is the allegation from members of the Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses that police do not always intervene when church members are kidnapped by family members in order to force their deprogramming.

One minority group, whose situation could be said to have become worse from a legal and political point of view, is Japan's estimated 3 million Buraku people, a social caste who have tended to live in isolated neighbourhoods, and tend to be victims of long-ingrained social discrimination with regard to job opportunities, marriage and other areas where they may interact with other members of society.

There were intense efforts by the Burakumin to have new laws adopted to replace legislation which expired in March 2002 (the Law on Special Measures for Dowa Projects), under which various special measures to assist and develop Dowa districts had been in place for a number of decades; a special scholarship programme was also discontinued. They have not succeeded in having the government of Japan adopt a national law against discrimination that would protect the Burakumin and other minorities and indigenous peoples, despite some discussion of a new law against discrimination in the Japanese Diet in 2002-3. This has led to criticisms from international bodies, including from the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance during a recent visit to Japan. A bill discussed in 2002-3 in the Japanese Diet for a new human rights commission also was of concern to many UN bodies including the Human Rights Council, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, regarding among others the degree of independence proposed for such a body. A new bill, prepared in 2005 but never submitted, does not seem to address these concerns.

A slight, mainly symbolic, improvement has however occurred more recently for minorities who are long-term residents of Japan, with a local court for the first time ruling in April 2005 that a provision dealing with acquisition of citizenship to be unconstitutional. (There are 2 million 'foreigners' residing in Japan, a large number of whom are long-term residents or even individuals born in the country.) Citizenship still remains difficult to obtain for 'new' minorities from non-Japanese ethnic background.

While many, though far from all, Koreans living in the country hold Japanese citizenship and are long established in Japan, there are persistent complaints of social discrimination and other obstacles, including in education where students graduating from private Korean-language schools would not have their studies recognized in some cases for admission to university. This changed in September 2003 with changes to the School Education Act, now permitting graduates of a number of non-Japanese-language schools – mainly Korean – to become eligible to take university entrance examinations. In the last few years many universities admitted graduates from Korean and non-Japanese-language schools other than those listed in the national legislation. There was still no official financial support for private minority schools during this period, however, a situation considered as discriminatory by some of these minorities, especially the Koreans.

Newer minorities, including mainly Brazilian, Chinese, Filipino, Peruvian and Thai workers, continued to appear vulnerable to exploitation, prejudice and discrimination. While international treaties may be applied under the Japanese constitution, courts in Japan have tended to interpret these obligations restrictively, either for example in terms of access to employment opportunities and employment, or access to private facilities that bar foreigners with their 'Japanese Only' policies. Unfortunately for minorities, the country's highest court has handed them a setback when it ruled in April 2005 that the International Convention against All Forms of Racial Discrimination did not impose an obligation on municipal governments to adopt specific regulations prohibiting discrimination.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have previously expressed their concern at the government's lack of data on the ethnic composition of the Japanese population, and on economic and social indicators reflecting the situation of minorities. Both Committees have requested that such data be provided, disaggregated by gender and national and ethnic group, and include data on exposure to violence of minority women. CEDAW has also requested data on the education, employment, social welfare and health status of minority women. The Japanese government has however failed to act on these requests to date.

In response, minority women took the initiative themselves, with a coalition of Buraku, Ainu and minority Korean women working together in 2003, 2004 and 2005 to draw up and implement surveys containing a common set of 41 questions covering the abovementioned areas of education, employment, social welfare, health status and exposure to violence, in addition to further survey questions specific to the particular circumstances of each group. In September 2007 the results of these surveys, together with proposals for policies to address the issues faced by minority women, were presented to government representatives, including the Gender Equality Bureau charged with formulating national policy on gender equality. Survey results demonstrated issues such as the low levels of post-compulsory education for Ainu women, particularly those over 40 years of age, higher than average levels of reliance on public welfare among those in the Buraku community, and the importance to Korean minority women of continuing to practice traditional Korean rituals for ethnic and cultural solidarity. All groups proposed to the government the introduction of legislation prohibiting discrimination, implementation of a government survey of minority women, policies reflecting the views of minority women, ongoing consultative processes between government and minority women, facilitation of the participation of minority women in decision making bodies and respect and promotion of minority culture.

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