Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

State of the World's Minorities 2006 - Japan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 22 December 2005
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2006 - Japan, 22 December 2005, available at: [accessed 31 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.

Usually viewed as a fairly homogeneous state, Japan has nevertheless non-negligible numbers of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities. In addition to those that could be described as traditional or national minorities such as the Buraku people (Burakumin), the Ainu people (widely recognized as indigenous) 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 from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Few positive developments have occurred for the Ainu during 2004–5, 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. There have been calls from international organizations for Japan to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries in order to provide greater 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). 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.

There is 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 in 2004–5 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 (Dowa), and tend to be victims of long-ingrained social discrimination with regard to job opportunities 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 Concerning Special Government Measures for Regional Improvement Special 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, despite some discussion of a new law against discrimination in the Japanese Diet in 2004–5. 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 2004 in the Japanese Diet for a new human rights commission also was of concern to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, regarding the degree of independence proposed for such a body. A new bill in 2005 does not seem to address these concerns.

A slight, mainly symbolic, improvement has however occurred in 2004–5 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. (There were thought to be over 600,000 individuals of Korean descent living in Japan at the end of 2004.) 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 2004–5, many universities admitted graduates from Korean and non-Japaneselanguage 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 there is legislation against racial discrimination and international treaties that may be used under Japanese law to protect them, courts in Japan have tended in 2004–5 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.

As for the rights of foreign workers, legislation such as the Labour Standards Law and the Employment Security Law in theory apply to all workers in the country, but in practice they remain largely at the whim of their employers, especially in the case of workers in irregular situations. There are continuing reports of safety standards being ignored for illegal workers and of below-minimum-wage salaries being paid. There has been pressure exerted on Japan, mainly from NGOs (for example by the International Steering Committee for the Campaign for Ratification of the Migrants Rights Convention), during 2004–5 to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

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