1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


As the Japanese economy continued to stagnate amid rising levels of public debt and a debt-laden banking system, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partners won the June 2000 parliamentary elections behind a deeply unpopular prime minister on promises to continue injecting money into the economy to keep it afloat.

Following its defeat in World War II, Japan adopted a United States-drafted constitution in 1947 that vested executive authority in a prime minister and cabinet, created the two-house Diet (parliament), and ended the emperor's divine status. In 1955, the two main conservative parties merged to form the governing LDP, and the two wings of the opposition Japan Socialist Party (JSP) united. This "1955 system" remained in place throughout the cold war, as the LDP won successive elections, presided over what became the world's second largest economy, and maintained close security ties to the U.S. The system rested on an "iron triangle" of politicians, business, and the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy set policy and imposed costly economic regulations that protected businesses, while the LDP spent heavily on public works projects to benefit its rural stronghold as well as its corporate backers, who funneled both legal and illegal contributions back to the ruling party.

Following a string of corruption scandals involving LDP politicians in the 1980s and the end of cold war security tensions, the ruling party lost power for the first time in the 1993 elections. However, the LDP returned to power in a coalition government in 1994. By the mid-1990s, two new parties had emerged as credible alternatives to the LDP. Headed by maverick Ichiro Ozawa, the conservative New Frontier Party (NFP) promised economic deregulation and a more assertive foreign policy, while Naoto Kan's Democratic Party promoted good governance. Despite continued scandals, the LDP under Ryutaro Hashimoto won 239 out of 500 lower house seats in the early elections in October 1996 and formed a minority government.

Hashimoto's government was the first to confront economic problems that had been mounting since the collapse of Japan's "bubble economy" and its inflated asset prices in the early 1990s. When the regional financial crisis began in 1997, Japanese banks already had at least $600 billion in bad debt. As the crisis hit, consumer spending stalled as wages stagnated and companies laid off tens of thousands of workers. Further depressing consumption were a sales tax introduced in 1997 and fears that rising levels of public debt would erode the pension system's capacity to provide for Japan's aging population. Hashimoto proposed bureaucratic reforms and economic deregulation measures, but had trouble overcoming opposition from the party's own entrenched interests. He resigned after the LDP lost seats in the July 1998 upper house elections and was succeeded by Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi.

In fall 1998, Obuchi got parliament to approve more than $500 billion to restructure debt-ridden banks and to fund the first of several large fiscal stimulus packages. Obuchi also gave the government a lower house majority by forming a coalition in October 1999 with the lay-Buddhist New Komeito party and the Liberal Party, the successor to the NFP.

In a sudden development, Obuchi was incapacitated by a stroke on April 2, 2000, and died in May. His successor, Yoshiro Mori, the LDP's secretary-general, called an early election for June 25 after his popularity slid following several verbal gaffes. Under a 62.4 percent turnout, final results for a smaller, 480-seat parliament gave the LDP 233 seats; the Democratic Party, which had merged with several smaller parties since the last election, 127; New Komeito, 31; the Liberal Party, 22; the Communist Party, 20; the Social Democratic Party (the successor to the JSP), 19; the New Conservative Party (NCP), a Liberal Party splinter, 7; and other parties and independents, 21. The main opposition Democratic Party had campaigned on a platform of deregulation and fiscal tightening. With the economy having grown by only 0.5 percent in the year to March 31, the LDP had pledged to continue spending heavily on public works until the economy recovered. After the election, the LDP formed a coalition government with New Komeito and the NCP.

Dogged by accusations of scandals and incompetence, the government survived a no-confidence motion on November 22, but only after the leader of the LDP's second largest faction and liberal wing, Koichi Kato, backed down from his threat to support the opposition. Several surveys by leading newspapers in November put support for the Mori government at between 15 and 18 percent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Japanese can change their government through elections. The lower house has 300 single-member, simple plurality districts and 180 party-list, proportional representation seats. The upper house has 152 single-seat districts and 100 seats chosen by proportional representation. The districts favor the LDP's rural stronghold. The bureaucracy continued to function with limited transparency, and official corruption remained a problem. The Berlin-based Transparency International's 2000 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Japan in a tie for 23rd place out of 90 countries with a score of 6.4 on a 1-to-10 scale, with Finland, the top-ranked and least corrupt country, receiving a 10.

The 650,000-strong ethnic Korean community continued to face unofficial discrimination in housing, education, and employment opportunities. Koreans and other ethnic minorities born in Japan are not automatically considered Japanese citizens. Instead, those seeking citizenship must apply for naturalization and submit to an extensive background check. Authorities reportedly frequently deny applications. The three million Burakumin, who are descendants of feudal-era outcasts, and the tiny, indigenous Ainu minority continued to face unofficial discrimination and social ostracism.

The judiciary is independent. The criminal procedure code allows authorities to restrict a suspect's right to counsel during an investigation and bars counsel during interrogations; human rights groups say that in practice, access to counsel is limited. Rights organizations also say that the frequent practice of holding suspects in police cells from arrest to sentencing encourages abuse of detainees, which police sometimes commit to extract confessions. Penal authorities continued to subject prisoners to severe regimentation and dehumanizing punishments. Amnesty International said in August that at Narita Airport, people who are denied entry to Japan are sent to a special, privately run facility, where they are often subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

The press is independent, but is not always outspoken. Exclusive private press clubs provide major media outlets with access to top politicians and bureaucrats. In return, journalists often practice self-censorship regarding the financial condition of troubled companies and banks and other sensitive issues. The press also rarely covers organized crime. The education ministry routinely censors, or orders revisions to, passages in history textbooks describing Japan's World War II atrocities. The supreme court affirmed in 1997 the government's right of censorship, but for the first time ruled that the education ministry had exceeded its authority by censoring references to well-documented Japanese germ warfare experiments in China in the 1940s.

Women face unofficial employment discrimination and are frequently tracked into clerical careers. In recent years, the Ministry of Labor and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation have issued reports suggesting that sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread. A 1997 law banned workplace discrimination and sexual harassment against women and lifted restrictions on women's working hours. However, sanctions for corporate violators are weak. Organized groups continued to traffick women to Japan for purposes of prostitution. Teenage prostitution and child pornography continued to be fairly widespread despite a 1999 law intended to crack down on both of these problems.

There is full freedom of religion; Buddhism and Shintoism have the most adherents. In the wake of the 1995 terrorist attacks in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the government amended the Religious Corporation Law to give authorities greater oversight of "religious corporations," which are those religious groups that voluntarily register in order to receive tax benefits and other advantages.

Trade unions are independent and active. Members of the armed forces, police, and firefighters are not allowed to form unions or to strike. Civil servants cannot strike, and they face restrictions on bargaining collectively.

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