U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

Human Rights in Japan

Fact sheet released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
U.S. Department of State, July 31, 1997.

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Japan is a parliamentary democracy based on a 1947 constitution. Sovereignty is vested in the people, and executive power is exercised by a cabinet, composed of a prime minister and ministers of state, which is responsible to the Diet, Japan's bicameral parliament. The Diet, elected by universal suffrage and secret ballot, designates the prime minister, who must be a member of that body. The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative branches.

A well-organized and disciplined police force in Japan generally respects the human rights of the populace and is firmly under the control of the civil authorities. Yet while the government and a just and efficient legal system generally assure observance of constitutionally provided human rights, there continue to be reports of physical and psychological abuse of prisoners or detainees. Officials are sometimes dismissed for such abuse but are seldom tried, convicted, or imprisoned. The burakumin (a group historically treated as outcasts), the Ainu (Japan's indigenous people), Koreans and other alien residents experience varying degrees of societal discrimination.

The constitution sets out explicitly the civil liberties and rights enjoyed by the Japanese people. It provides for the right of workers to associate freely in unions, whose members may organize, bargain, and act collectively. Collective bargaining is practiced widely, and unions are free of government control. The Japanese Trade Union Confederation is Japan's largest labor organization.

The government is committed to the rights and welfare of children, and in general the rights of children are adequately protected. There is no pattern of societal abuse against children, and both boys and girls have equal access to health care and to other public facilities. Under the revised Labor Standards Law of 1987, children under 15 years of age may not be employed as workers, and those under age 18 may not be employed in dangerous or harmful work. The Ministry of Labor rigorously enforces child labor laws.

The position of women in society, although much improved during the last few decades, continues to reflect deep-seated traditional values that assign women a subordinate role in the workplace. Discrimination by private employers against women persists, although it is prohibited by the constitution. Legislation has been enacted over the past 30 years to accord women the same legal status as men, yet disparities in pay and access to managerial positions persist for women, who now comprise more than 40 percent of the labor force.

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