Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Japan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Japan, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.

Japan continues to have no civil or criminal law against racial discrimination, a key issue for minorities. Such an absence has the effect of enabling discriminatory practices, according to a February report prepared by the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan (SNMJ) and submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The report even noted instances in which stores and restaurants were seen to have signs explicitly stating 'Japanese Only'.

The Japanese government's position on the matter is that such a law is unnecessary because the country's Constitution already forbids 'discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sex, social status and family origin', according to a February statement released by CERD following discussions with a senior delegation from the government. However, observers say minorities in Japan still face barriers. In March, following a nine-day visit, Jorge Bustamante, the UN's expert on migrants' rights, urged Japan to step up its protection of migrants, and noted that, 'Racism and discrimination based on nationality are still too common in Japan, including in the workplace, in schools, in health care establishments and housing.'

Migrant women in Japan were seen as particularly vulnerable to discrimination and violence. The SNMJ report highlighted the issue of discrimination and domestic violence against women, including many from Asia and Latin America. Non-Japanese nationals were reported to be six times more likely to be abused than Japanese women in domestic situations, according to the report. Japan has a law against domestic violence, yet undocumented migrant women enjoy only minimal protection, the report notes. For example, undocumented women are permitted to stay in government-run shelters for only two weeks and cannot access crucial support services. Faced with a lack of support and the threat of being deported, 'a significant number of undocumented migrant women and children choose to bear abuses, or if they are already in a shelter, to return to their violent partners or become homeless,' the report notes.

Japan also excludes undocumented migrant workers from its public health system – a position the group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says may be a violation of basic rights to access health services, including anti-retroviral therapy.

Children of minorities also face difficulties in the education system, particularly those of Nikkei-Brazilian, Nikkei-Peruvian (who have Japanese ancestry but whose families emigrated to South America during the last century) and Filipino ancestry. Roughly 20 per cent of children from these groups are believed not to attend school at all, according to local government surveys. And since the high school entrance exam system makes little allowance for students who do not speak Japanese as a native language, the number of children from minority groups who move on to high school drops precipitously. Less than 30 per cent of the children of migrants and migrant workers go on to high school, according to estimates. For Japanese nationals, that figure is 97 per cent, according to the SNMJ report. The national government has yet to compile a wide-reaching nationwide survey on the children of non-Japanese nationals or ethnic minorities.

Schools catering to the children of Brazilian- and Peruvian-Japanese are also underfunded, with most of the costs coming from tuition fees paid by parents. Following the global economic crisis in 2008, when 60 per cent of Brazilian migrant workers lost their jobs, 16 schools catering to their children shut down. The SNMJ report notes that half of the affected students returned to Brazil; however, 22 per cent 'still remain completely out of school in Japan'.

The SNMJ report also notes that naturalized citizens faced pressure to alter their names to Japanese names. In one January case, a Thai woman who went to a legal office to apply for Japanese nationality claimed she was told to 'come back with a Japanese name in mind for when you acquire Japanese nationality'.

Minority groups in Japan also continued to experience discrimination, according to reports. For example, the 3 million Burakumin, who are ethnically Japanese but the descendants of feudal-era outcasts, 'frequently were victims of entrenched societal discrimination, including restricted access to housing, education and employment opportunities', according to the US State Department's Human Rights country report for Japan, released in March.

While the government has been lauded for its 2008 decision to officially recognize Ainu as an indigenous people, it has been slow to acknowledge other groups. The Japanese government has not yet acknowledged Ryukyuan people as indigenous even though, as noted by CERD, the group appeared 'to have a distinct language, culture and history' that would lead other countries to recognize them as such.

The year 2010 also marked the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. But Japan has yet to accept legal responsibility for the so-called 'comfort women' system implemented by the Japanese Imperial Army starting in 1932, whereby women from Asian countries colonized by Japan were forced into sexual slavery. The remaining survivors are elderly and many have died without seeing redress. In August, the rights group Amnesty International reiterated calls for the Japanese government to 'accept full responsibility, including legal responsibility, in a way that publicly acknowledges the harm these women have suffered'.

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