Top>Opinion>The Opening of Japan in Terms of Human Rights

OpinionIndex

Yozo Yokota

Yozo Yokota [Profile]

The Opening of Japan in Terms of Human Rights

Yozo Yokota
Professor in Graduate School of Law, Chuo University Area of Specialization: International law, international human rights law, international economic law, international institutional law

Prime Minister Kan's third opening of Japan speech

In January 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and delivered a speech outlining the "third opening of Japan" in the modern era as one of his key goals. In sending out this message, the Prime Minister appears to be strongly urging Japan to sign to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to which there is deep-rooted domestic opposition, and make more of an effort to conclude free trade agreements (FTA). To put it another way, he seems to regard this opening of Japan primarily in economic terms. Although that stance is perfectly valid, if Prime Minister Kan is truly committed to the concept of a third opening of Japan, he should respond to growing calls from the international community and take immediate steps to also open up the country in terms of human rights.

Required improvements in human rights in Japan

The second opening of Japan came after the end of World War II. This was symbolized by the spirit of international cooperation as evidenced in the preface to the Japanese constitution, which proudly declares to the rest of the world that "we desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth." The emphasis behind the opening of Japan back then was firmly on pacifism, democracy, and respect for human rights. The constitution clearly stresses the importance of human rights, with Articles 11 through 40 setting out specific provisions relating to human rights (with the exception of Article 30, which deals with taxation).

The human rights provisions contained within the Japanese constitution were remarkable and comprehensive back then and remain so to this day, compared to almost any other country. In recent years however, the international community has advised Japan to improve human rights via a number of different channels. In particular, the UN Human Rights Council has recommended regular universal inspections and has joined a whole host of organizations, including the ICCPR Human Rights Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in calling for Japan to improve its conditions by introducing individual complaints procedures and establishing a domestic human rights monitoring body.

The need to introduce individual complaints procedures

Individual complaints procedures are specified under treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Any individual claiming that their rights under international human rights treaties such as these have been violated is entitled to file a complaint with a committee of qualified experts set up in accordance with the relevant treaty and have their case reviewed. Individuals only have access to such procedures, however, if countries that have signed up to these treaties actually introduce them. Japan has not introduced any such procedures to date, due to incompatibilities with the provision of an independent judicial power under its constitution. It has been made clear, however, that opinions raised by international committees based on such procedures are not legally binding and do not have the power to overturn verdicts reached by the courts. This effectively eliminates any obstacles on paper.

In reality too, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan clearly declared its intent to introduce individual complaints procedures in its manifesto, with Justice Minister Keiko Chiba even singling it out as a priority at a press conference following the establishment of the current administration in September 2010. Having been strongly urged by the international community and even listed as a policy objective by the current administration, the introduction of individual complaints procedures in accordance with international human rights treaties is something that Japan should definitely be looking to achieve in the near future.

The need to establish a domestic human rights monitoring body

Another key issue that Japan needs to address is the establishment of a domestic human rights monitoring body. Again, this is something that Japan has been strongly urged to do by the UN Human Rights Council and numerous other international human rights organizations. As with the introduction of individual complaints procedures, this is another objective included in the Democratic Party of Japan's manifesto, with Justice Minister Keiko Chiba again indicating at the same press conference that it was an urgent priority.

Japan has had a civil rights commission system, presided over by the Justice Minister, in place since 1949, after its new constitution came into effect, with over 14,000 civil rights commissioners stationed around the country at present. Their activities include accepting complaints from victims in cases of human rights violations, gathering information and reporting to the Justice Minister. Although this system serves a purpose and produces results to a certain extent, human rights commissioners are essentially just private sector volunteers who perform duties on behalf of the Justice Minister. From an international standpoint, this does not constitute a domestic human rights monitoring body with investigative and advisory authorities independent from the government. As such, the international community is increasingly calling on Japan to establish an independent human rights monitoring body.

Genuinely opening up Japan in terms of human rights

Having publically declared his commitment to the third opening of Japan, Prime Minister Kan should exert his leadership and get down to the serious business of introducing individual complaints procedures in accordance with international human rights treaties and establishing an independent domestic human rights monitoring body, so as to open up Japan in terms of human rights in the modern era. In addition to being strongly urged by the international community, the government is also facing growing calls from a public that expects these two human rights policy objectives to be implemented. Given that it would also require relatively little funding, this could be the ideal opportunity for the Kan Cabinet, which has been struggling to implement the objectives set out in its manifesto due to financial constraints, to deliver substantial results.

Yozo Yokota
Professor in Graduate School of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: International law, international human rights law, international economic law, international institutional law
Professor Yozo Yokota was born in Tokyo in 1940. After graduating from the College of Liberal Arts at the International Christian University in 1964, he went on to obtain a doctorate from the Graduate School of Law and Politics (Doctor of Laws) at the University of Tokyo in 1969. He has previously worked as a professor at the International Christian University, the University of Tokyo and Chuo University Faculty of Law. In addition to his current position, he also serves as Chairman of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts, Special Advisor to the Ministry of Justice and President of the Japan Association for United Nations Studies. His specialist fields include international law, international human rights law, international economic law and international institutional law. Major publications to date include International Society and Law - Conditions for Peace and Development [Kokusai Shakai to Ho - Heiwa to Hatten no Jyoken] (Obunsha, 1982), The Legal Structure of International Organizations [Kokusai Kiko no Hokozo] (Kokusai Shoin Publishing Company, 2001), Human Rights in Japan and in the World [Nihon no Jinken/Sekai no Jinken] (Fuma Shobo, 2003) and International Society and Law - International Law, International Human Rights Law and International Economic Law [Kokusai-shakai to Ho - Kokusai Ho, Kokusai Jinken-ho, Kokusai Keizai-ho] (& ed., Yuhikaku Publishing, 2010)