2014 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst): 1.0
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst): 1
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst): 1

Ratings Change

Japan's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to a steady rise in the activity of civil society organizations and an absence of legal restrictions on religious freedom.


The governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had recaptured the lower house of parliament in late 2012 after three years in opposition, secured a majority in the upper house as well in July 2013. The victory gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a greater degree of legislative control than many of his recent predecessors as he presided over a tentative economic revival. Abe's government faces a dilemma in squaring a push for economic reform with a simultaneous assertion of a more nationalist foreign policy that has exacerbated tensions with China and South Korea in particular.

Also during the year, Japan and particularly its northeastern regions continued to suffer from the financial, human, and environmental repercussions of the 2011 "triple disaster," in which a powerful earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and nuclear meltdown devastated the coastal region north of Tokyo.


Political Rights: 37 / 40

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

Japan is a parliamentary democracy with a purely symbolic monarchy. It has a bicameral parliament, the National Diet, in which the lower house, the House of Representatives, plays the dominant role, particularly through its control over the budget. Of the lower house's 480 members, 300 are elected in single-member plurality districts. The remaining 180 members are elected on the basis of proportional representation in 11 multimember constituencies. All members serve four-year terms. The upper house, the House of Councillors, has 242 members elected through a combination of multimember constituencies and nationwide proportional representation voting. All members serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years. The prime minister must have the support of a majority in the lower house.

Elections in Japan are free and fair. In December 2012, the opposition LDP recaptured the lower house with a surprisingly clear election victory, taking 294 of the 480 seats. The then governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was sharply reduced to 57 seats, followed by the newly formed Japan Restoration Party with 54 and the LDP-allied New Komeito with 31. Six smaller parties and five independents divided the remainder.

The LDP consolidated its parliamentary control in the July 2013 upper house elections, capturing 65 of the 121 seats at stake for a new total of 135. Its coalition partner, New Komeito, won 11 for a total of 20. The DPJ, meanwhile, took only 17 seats, leaving it with 59. Five smaller parties and two independents also won seats.

In November, the Supreme Court faulted the 2012 elections for perpetuating disparities in population between the largest and smallest single-member districts, but it declined to annul the results in affected districts. Disparities remain wide even after a small reduction in seats (from 480 to 475) to take effect in the next Lower House election.

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Japanese political parties compete vigorously for voters' attention and support. Most parties can be classified as centrist, with the governing LDP falling right of center, and the opposition DPJ falling squarely in the center. The main exception to this tendency has been the Japan Communist Party, which has long been represented in the Diet and retains a membership of over 300,000. Not all parties clearly fit along an ideological left-right spectrum. New Komeito, which is part of the governing coalition, has its roots in the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai, though its support extends beyond the membership of this organization today. It espouses pacifist policies but aligns with the LDP on many other matters. The array of parties has changed rapidly over the past decade as factions split from and then rejoin the LDP or DPJ.

Party membership rates remain high in Japan, with the two largest parties counting more than a million citizens as members. Voter turnout for the upper house elections in July 2013 was recorded at 52.6 percent. Lower house elections generally feature a slightly higher turnout; a reported 59.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in December 2012.

While all citizens have equal political rights under the law, women remain underrepresented in political office in practice. Just 39 of 480 lower house members are women. However, the 2013 upper house elections gave women just over 16 percent of the chamber's seats, a fairly large share by historical standards.

C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12

For a significant part of the postwar era, national bureaucracies have had more policymaking power in Japan than in other developed democracies. Under the so-called "developmental state" model, Japanese politicians have contented themselves with setting overall guidelines for national goals and aspirations. Frequent changes of political personnel in the cabinet further contributed to this relative lack of control by elected officials.

The close collaboration between national ministries, the political leadership, and corporate groups has been cited to explain the decades-long dominance of the LDP. Retired bureaucrats often join corporations or political parties where they continue to benefit from and act through close association with their successors. In some areas, such as construction, this has led to corruption. Japan was ranked 18 out of 177 countries assessed in Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Civil Liberties: 53 / 60 (+2)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 14 / 16 ( +1)

Japan's news media are overwhelmingly private and independent. Competition is vigorous between television, radio, and print outlets. National and regional newspapers continue to log some of the highest subscription rates in the world. Online media are slowly establishing themselves as well. However, the country's press clubs, or kisha kurabu, lead to some homogeneity of news coverage by fostering close relationships between the major media and bureaucrats and politicians. There are few media outlets whose editorial stance diverges from a centrist commitment to the status quo. NHK, the national broadcaster, is charged with political neutrality, but controversy has erupted over Abe's appointments to the NHK board hinting at a politicization of NHK reporting.

Japanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious groups are permitted to remain unlicensed, but registering with government authorities as a "religious corporation" brings tax benefits and other advantages. While the terrorism perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995 led to its designation as a terrorist organization, there are no lingering legal restrictions on religious activities by nonviolent groups. Remaining ties between the state and Shinto organizations have led to vigorous protests and civil rights litigation in the past.

There are no restrictions on academic freedom. While many institutions of higher education are public, their direct ties with the Ministry of Education have been loosened in recent years, most noticeably through the limited privatization of national universities in the hojinka process of 2006.

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12 ( +1)

The constitution guarantees freedoms of assembly and association. Massive peaceful protests against the restarting of two nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown took place in 2012, and similar antinuclear protests continued on a smaller scale throughout 2013. Protests against the U.S. military presence remain frequent in Okinawa.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become more active in Japan over the past decade, and bureaucratic hurdles to their formation have largely been eliminated. Common areas of NGO activity include human rights, social welfare, and environmental protection.

Union mobilization is widespread, though it typically takes the form of enterprise-level unions rather than industrial-sector or general unions. Attempts to unionize part-time workers have been freely allowed, though they have not generated a large-scale response.

F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

Japan's judiciary is independent. There are several levels of courts, and suspects generally receive fair public trials by an impartial tribunal within three months of being detained. For serious criminal cases, a judicial panel composed of professional judges and saiban-in (lay-judges), selected from the general public, rule on defendants. While arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is not practiced, the police may detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge in order to extract confessions. Prison conditions comply with international standards, though prison officials sometimes use physical and psychological intimidation to enforce discipline or elicit confessions.

Organized crime is regarded as fairly prominent, particularly in the construction and nightlife industries. Reports of organized crime groups' ability to extort public corporations have flared up occasionally in the past, but are declining.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, or social status. However, entrenched societal discrimination prevents Japan's estimated three million burakumin – descendants of feudal-era outcasts – and the indigenous Ainu minority from gaining equal access to housing and employment, though such forms of discrimination are slowly waning as the Japanese population freely moves within the country, weakening traditional social distinctions. Japan-born descendants of colonial subjects (particularly Korean and Chinese) continue to suffer similar disadvantages.

Antidiscrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation or gender identity, and laws on rape and prostitution do not address same-sex activity. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people reportedly face social stigma and some cases of harassment.

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16

Japanese citizens enjoy broad personal autonomy in their choices of residence, profession, and education.

Although women enjoy legal equality, discrimination in employment and sexual harassment on the job are common. Violence against women often goes unreported due to concerns about family reputation and other social mores. Japan is a destination, source, and transit country for people trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation.

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

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