The use of the death penalty, government policy on "comfort women," children's rights, and asylum for refugees were key human rights concerns in Japan this year. Japan played a generally constructive role on the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Implementation of guidelines on the use of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to promote human rights and democracy was inconsistent, and policies toward human rights abusers tended to follow the U.S. lead, sometimes with different strategies and tactics. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned in July, but the Liberal Democratic Party maintained control of the government, and his successor, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, (former foreign minister), continued the same basic foreign and domestic policies related to human rights.

Human Rights Developments

On April 27, in a landmark ruling, a Yamaguchi district court ordered the Japanese government to pay U.S. $2,300 each to three South Korean "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The ruling was a rejection of existing policy denying government compensation to individuals. During South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's visit to Tokyo in October, the Japanese emperor, Akihito, and Prime Minister Obuchi made the strongest official apology thus far for the abuses of the past, expressing Japan's "remorseful repentance" for "the unbearable damage and pain" inflicted on the Korean people during colonial rule. But the government announced no changes in its policy on "comfort women." Japan continued to use the death penalty, with some twenty-eight executions carried out in secret since 1993. In June, three convicted murderers were hanged, but the Justice Ministry refused to give notice of the executions, claiming that announcing them in advance would cause relatives "too much distress." Japan routinely keeps death row prisoners in solitary confinement for years and prevents access by lawyers and physicians during the week before their execution. Japan continued to refuse to grant asylum to refugees, though refugees from Burma were still allowed to stay legally in Japan on a temporary basis. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 1997 (the latest figures available) a total of 242 people applied for refugee status from countries worldwide; only one person was given asylum. The government played a high-profile role at the ICC conference in Rome, backing the creation of the ICC. Following the appointment of a U.N. Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Japan announced a grant of U.S. $100,000 to assist with his work and offered to sponsor a symposium in Asia on child soldiers. At the annual session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, the Japanese delegation usefully highlighted the refusal of Burma to grant access to the U.N.'s special rapporteur. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs marked the fiftieth anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights by holding its third symposium on human rights in the Asia-Pacific Region (January 27-28), with Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, as the keynote speaker. Japan's ODA program remained the largest in the world for the seventh year in a row, with U.S. $9.3 billion in loans disbursed in FY 1997, despite a 10 percent cutback. Japan continued to voice its commitment to use ODA to promote democratization and human rights but also stressed "positive linkage," the use of aid as an incentive, for example the effort to encourage free market reforms in Vietnam, over "negative linkage" such as aid suspension in the case of Nigeria. The application of the ODA charter's guidelines on democratization and human rights remained both highly inconsistent and erratic, but the Japanese government was far more consistent in applying the charter's principles dealing with military spending and development of nuclear weapons. For example, almost immediately following India's nuclear tests in May, Japan cancelled $30 million in grants to the Indian government and said it would consider suspending larger aid programs. It imposed similar sanctions on Pakistan when it conducted nuclear tests later that month. The economic crisis in Southeast Asia had serious implications for Tokyo's investment and trade relations. In May, then-Foreign Minister Obuchi toured the region, noting that Japan had committed $37 billion in aid for the region while also calling for greater transparency and accountability.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights defenders in Japan were active domestically in protesting Japan's use of the death penalty, on issues surrounding the rights of foreign workers and refugees, on children's rights and on the government's policy on "comfort women." Japanese activists increasingly joined their Asian colleagues in regional and international advocacy efforts towards the ratification of the migrant workerconvention, on global campaigns against capital punishment, on child labor, and protesting human rights violations in the ASEAN region, especially those committed in Burma, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

The Role of the International Community

A report by a private consultant to the U.N., submitted to the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, was sharply critical of Japan on the "comfort women" issue, calling on Japan to criminally punish those responsible for the sex slavery as well as to pay compensation to the victims. A report by the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, was more positive. While criticizing Tokyo for failing to acknowledge any legal responsibility, she gave the government credit for apologizing and expressing remorse to the women and for including reference to the sexual slavery in Japanese textbooks. Japan's record of compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was reviewed in June. The U.N. committee complained about the lack of an independent body to monitor children's rights and raised concern about those in "vulnerable categories," including Ainu and Korean ethnic minorities not fully integrated into government programs for children. It also urged protections for detained juveniles and called for development of a comprehensive plan to combat child prostitution and trafficking. Japan's report on compliance with the International Covenant and Civil and Political Rights was scheduled for review by the Human Rights Committee in October.
This report covers events of 1998

This 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.