Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 14:34 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Japan

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Japan, 1 January 1997, available at: [accessed 21 February 2018]
Comments This report covers events of 1996
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.

Human Rights Developments

Japan continued to confront allegations of poor prison conditions and discrimination in the legal system against foreigners, including women trafficked into the country for prostitution, migrant workers and Chinese dissidents who entered Japan as students. Its handling of the issue of "comfort women" who provided sexual services to the Japanese military during World War II continued to be controversial. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's government was generally cautious in raising human rights concerns in other countries, particularly when dealing with its Asian neighbors where Tokyo has major economic and political interests at stake. The exception was Burma, subject of increasing concern and activism by the Japanese government in response to deteriorating conditions there. In its Official Development Assistance (ODA) program, Japan emphasized "positive linkage," offering assistance to governments in transition. Beyond its bilateral relations, Japan took some significant steps forward in 1996 by deciding to support the international campaign to ban land mines worldwide, and by announcing during a visit to Tokyo by President Clinton a joint program with the U.S. to build civil society and strengthen judicial systems in "new democracies." On the other hand, Japan continued to play a disappointing role in the U.N. discussions about an International Criminal Court, supporting the court in principle but slowing down the process of moving toward a diplomatic conference.

Within Japan, human rights abuses continued to occur during pre-trial detention and in prisons. Detention and prison facilities were characterized by draconian rules, arbitrary punishments, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and severe restrictions on contact with the outside world. A number of lawsuits challenging the mistreatment of prisoners were filed over the course of the year. Indeed, there were over one hundred lawsuits pending in the Japanese courts that involved assaults by prison guards, the painful and degrading use of physical restraints as punishment, and other such abuses. The Center for Prisoners' Rights, a Japanese organization that litigates on behalf of prisoners, believed that as an increasing number of such suits were being filed, judges were becoming more inclined to rule in favor of prisoners.

Foreign workers in Japan continued to face major problems with the Japanese legal system, often not being provided with adequate interpretation or being informed of their rights, including their right to counsel, upon arrest for immigration or other offenses.

Asylum seekers faced major hurdles in Japan. In September, the Tokyo High Court rejected an appeal from a prominent Chinese dissident, Zhao Nan, for political asylum. His initial application was turned down by the Ministry of Justice in 1991, on the narrow technical grounds that he had not filed his original appeal for refugee status within sixty days of his arrival in Japan in 1989. The High Court upheld that ruling. Zhao Nan had been imprisoned inChina for two years from 1982 for his pro-democracy activities and continued his advocacy while in Japan. Since the 1989 massacre in China, no Chinese dissident has been recognized as a political refugee by the Japanese government, although at least forty-eight dissidents have obtained a special visa, renewable every six months, allowing them to remain in Japan. Zhao planned to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The treatment of some 200,000 so-called "comfort women" from China, Korea and the Philippines, forced by the Japanese army to serve as sex slaves during World War II, continued to receive international attention in 1996. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy filed her report at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in April and urged the Japanese government to identify and punish those responsible for the use of sex slaves, to pay compensation to the victims, and to issue a public apology to the individual women in writing. Japanese officials questioned the accuracy of the report and lobbied unsuccessfully against its adoption by the commission. A voluntary fund established by the government began paying US$18,500 each to former sex slaves, which some NGOs and rights advocates welcomed and others criticized as insufficient either to fulfill the women's needs or to discharge the Japan's government's legal and moral responsibility.

The Foreign Ministry's annual report on ODA for 1995 (published in February 1996) noted that Japan was once again the largest bilateral aid donor worldwide, providing $14.5 billion in 1995. Among the top ten ODA recipients were major human rights abusers, including the governments of China (more than $1.4 billion) and Indonesia ($880 million), as well as India ($886 million) and Pakistan ($271 million). In describing implementation of the ODA Charter's provision calling for consideration of human rights conditions in giving aid, the Foreign Ministry emphasized Japan's efforts to assist newly emerging democracies or market economies in Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and countries in Africa and Central America. It also cited some examples of "negative linkage," where ODA was suspended due to human rights violations, including Nigeria and Gambia in 1994. In other cases, instead of cutting off aid, Japan "urged recipient countries to improve" human rights, such as Thailand and Peru; or it took steps to reduce balance-of-payments support assistance, as with Kenya and Malawi.

In Burma, Japan had suspended in principle most of its ODA in 1988 but following the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 had moved to restore some limited grants assistance, such as $15.1 million for a nursing school, on "humanitarian grounds" and was preparing to restart major infrastructure projects.

Developments in 1996, however, pushed Tokyo to put any new ODA on hold and to take a tougher posture in response to the crackdown in Rangoon. Aung San Suu Kyi, in repeated interviews with the Japanese press, urged Japan to withhold aid and investment. Japan's ambassador in Rangoon, Yoichi Yamaguchi, met with her on several occasions and tried to play an intermediary role to help stimulate talks between her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the government.

When the Burmese government rounded up NLD members in May, Prime Minister Hashimoto quickly condemned the arrests saying they "run counter to democratization" and publicly called on SLORC to hold a dialogue with the NLD. Japan's foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikeda, issued a strongly worded protest to his Burmese counterpart, who was visiting Tokyo at the time, calling the arrests illegal and "unacceptable to Japan." He also indicated privately that the increased repression would have a negative effect on Japanese investment in Burma. This message was followed up in July, at the ASEAN ministerial conference in Jakarta, where Ikeda again met with Burmese Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw and protested a new law enacted by Rangoon banning public gatherings. At the same time, however, Japan actively supported Burma's bid to become a member of ASEAN.

Members of the Japanese Diet (parliament) urged Tokyo to go even further; a multiparty caucus called the "Diet Members' League for the Support of Myanmar's Democratization" issued a statement condemning the May arrests and urging Japan to "stop all cooperation" with Burma until those detained were released and the government began a dialogue with the opposition.

Reports in the Japanese press in June that Aung San Suu Kyi's arrest might be imminent provoked a warning from Tokyo that stronger action would be taken if she were detained, and the Foreign Ministry discussed possible contingencies for reacting to any further deterioration in conditions when two U.S. official envoys visited Tokyo to discuss Burma policy.

In contrast with its policy toward Burma, Japan reacted far less firmly to a major crackdown in Indonesia that began in July. While the government quietly urged Jakarta to release members of nongovernmental organizations and others detained solely for their peaceful political activity, it refused to condemn the violent arrests of those who occupied PDI (Democratic Party of Indonesia) headquarters, or the Indonesian government's use of the anti-subversion law. Tokyo took no steps to review its large ODA program to Indonesia. Foreign Minister Ikeda met with President Soeharto at the time of the ASEAN ministerial conference in July (prior to the crackdown); he raised the issue of human rights in East Timor during discussions with the Indonesian Foreign Minister Alatas.

Japan continued to downplay human rights in its relations with China, focusing instead on nuclear testing and regional security issues. Prime Minister Hashimoto met Premier Li Peng in Bangkok in March at the ASEAN summit meeting and urged China to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; he also pledged Japan's support for China's early entry into the World Trade Organization. The Chinese Foreign Minister visited Tokyo in March, but discussions were focused mainly on Taiwan. Early in 1996, the Japanese Foreign Ministry indicated it was considering putting a cap on ODA to Beijing in Fiscal Year 1996 due to China's nuclear testing program. But it continued to ignore the ODA Charter's human rights provisions in its relations with China. Amid tensions over Taiwan and the Diaoyu islands, the Japanese government was even more reluctant to raise human rights concerns with China except in the most general way. The Japanese government did, however, cosponsor the resolution on China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in April, despite strong protests from Beijing, and it privately urged China to uphold its international commitments on Hong Kong during and following the transition to Chinese rule in 1997. Foreign Minister Ikeda noted this during a visit to Hong Kong in August following his meeting with Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan.

In Indochina, Japan stepped up its support of the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia. Foreign Minister Ikeda visited Vietnam in late July and signed aid agreements worth $3.6 million and offered economic and cultural aid worth $32.4 million over the next three years, primarily for bridge-building. In meetings with senior Vietnamese officials, he urged continued economic reforms and offered Japan's support in building up the legal system; otherwise, human rights were not explicitly on the agenda. On Cambodia, Japan cochaired with the World Bank an international donors' meeting in Tokyo on July 11-12 and arranged a separate meeting with the two Cambodian prime ministers and donor representatives to discuss the domestic political situation and plans for elections in 1997 and 1998. The Japanese ambassador to Phnom Penh underlined the need to prepare carefully for the elections in order to sustain donor support, but did not raise specific human rights concerns. Japan announced it would give $2.5 million for removal of landmines in Cambodia in 1996 and 1997.

In South Asia, human rights concerns were largely overshadowed by Japanese efforts to promote regional stability and denuclearization. Pakistan's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, visited Tokyo in January and was urged to begin a dialogue with India on Kashmir. An ODA mission visited India in July, and though Japanese officials routinely discussed Kashmir as a source of tension and potential instability, they refrained from discussing human rights except by referring to the ODA Charter. In advance of an international India donors' meeting in Tokyo on September 16-18, cohosted with the World Bank, the Foreign Ministry ordered the Japanese embassy in New Delhi to investigate the use of bonded child labor.

In July, the Foreign Ministry cosponsored with U.N. University in Tokyo its second annual symposium on Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region. Though the seminar broke no new ground, it provided a useful forum to debate the pros and cons of establishing a regional human rights mechanism, and highlighted the positive role of NGOs throughout Asia.

The government announced in June, at the G-7 summit meeting in France, its plans to join the global campaign to ban land mines. Tokyo said it would hold an international conference in 1997 to support U.N. landmine clearance, as well as assistance for landmine victims, and that it would cosponsor at the U.N. General Assembly a resolution promoting a total ban on landmines. On the other hand, Japan planned to continue to produce and use self-destructing and self-deactivating landmines until the enactment of an international treaty banning all antipersonnel landmines.

At the August session of the Preparatory Committee on an International Criminal Court in New York, Japan again argued for a lengthy negotiation process on the grounds that major legal issues had not yet been resolved. That position reflected Japan's lack of enthusiasm more generally about the whole concept of the ICC.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights groups in Japan faced no legal restrictions on their activities.

The Role of the International Community

The president of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, visited Tokyo in October 1996, but in his meetings with the prime minister, business leaders and others, he focused mainly on economic and trade relations, following up on the E.U.-ASEAN summit in Bangkok in March. He made only general references to the common interests of the E.U. and Japan in promoting "the rule of law, human rights, market principles (and) free trade," and called for greater coordination in development policies, especially in Africa.

The Clinton administration made some progress in 1996 to increase cooperation with Japan on human rights. The Administration sent two envoys to Asia in June to discuss policy toward Burma, and the discussions in Tokyo were considered productive by both sides. The U.S.-Japan Global Partnership Agenda, which had omitted human rights at Tokyo's urging, was updated during President Clinton's visit to Japan in April. A new component was added, aimed at encouraging the development of civil society in "democracies" by providing assistance with election preparation and monitoring and strengthening judicial systems. A working group meeting was projected for El Salvador to develop a pilot program with the Salvadoran government.

In preparation for the G-7 summit in France, Japan had agreed to the inclusion of human rights language on China, Hong Kong and Burma in the final communiqué, though this was later dropped. Informal contact and consultation took place during the year on other issues, including the resolution on human rights in China introduced at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

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