Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Tuesday, June 3, 2003


Proposing rights for foreigners

Model law to stamp out discrimination a positive step

I think most of us face it after a while -- slammed doors due to how foreign we look.

News photo
A sign stuck on the window of a shop in Shinjuku warns off foreigners.

The realtor who won't show you certain apartments because the owners want Japanese renters only. The cop who stops you for a spot ID check for riding a bicycle.

The fearful looks on bank customers thanks to police notices warning the public of "bad foreigners" lurking around ATMs. A Tokyo Governor who asserts that Chinese are criminals due to their "ethnic DNA," and calls upon the Self-Defense Forces to round up "illegal foreigners" on sight after the next big earthquake.

How can these people get away with it? Because it is not illegal. Japan is the only OECD country without an antiracial-discrimination law. Ironic, since Japan ratified the U.N. International Convention on Eliminating Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1995, promising "without delay" to enact one.

Meanwhile, businesses have put up "Japanese Only" signs, spreading overt exclusionism nationwide.

The Japanese government's response? "We do not recognize that the present situation of Japan is one in which discriminative acts cannot be restrained by the existing legal system. . .a law prohibiting racial discrimination is not considered necessary."

Say what? Even after all the international promises and clear evidence of social damage, it can arrive at this conclusion?

Result: Got a problem? Take it to court at substantial cost for several years, and hope that a conservative judiciary sees it your way.

Just to get rights which are constitutionally guaranteed? Screws are loose. Even the U.N. agrees (see box below).

This is why a May 19 announcement is so important.

The Japan Civil Liberties Union (JCLU), a group of lawyers and legal scholars of civil and human rights, had its Subcommittee for the Rights of Foreigners release a proposal for a law against racial discrimination.

It can be seen at www. jclu. org , but a brief assessment:

First the good news. The proposal defines "Race" as "race, color of skin, ethnicity, nationality or national origin," going further than the U.N. CERD by making no applicable distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

It also flatly says, "no person (not 'citizen,' avoiding the loopholes in the Japanese Constitution) shall suffer Racial Discrimination."

It then describes specific instances of discrimination: "Direct" (treating any person at a disadvantage to others in the same circumstances, based on race), "Indirect" (application of neutral rules to disadvantage people of race), and "Harassment" (acts based on race creating "intimidation, insult, derision, or an unpleasant environment").

It also earmarks specific sectors for protection: Treatment in the labor force both as employee and potential employee, public and private sector; Medical treatment and social security, including national health insurance, protection of livelihood (for those who have lived in Japan more than one year), and welfare services.

Education is included, including public-sector support for bilingual and ethnic education, and school instruction on eliminating racial discrimination.

Housing is there (finally, protection against stoneheaded landlords!), and access to public goods and public groups.

Finally, it prohibits public officials (meaning all government employees) from causing, engaging in, or inciting racial discrimination. It also makes them responsible for creating policies at all levels promoting the elimination of racial discrimination.

Breathtaking stuff. But now for the fine print:

It allows caveats in interpretation. For example, "instances in which said rules or standards are objectively justifiable for a reasonable purpose" are excluded as examples of "Indirect Discrimination."

Read that again. I can see public officials, unable to decide whether a certain rule is "reasonably justified," sitting on their hands.

They already do so with the Freedom of Information Act, refusing to release information jeopardizing the "privacy of individuals" (even when that individual wants information about himself).

The worst thing about this proposal is that there is no mechanism for enforcement. No punishments, such as public apologies, fines, imprisonment, or even temporary suspension of business licenses for lawbreakers, are listed.

Why? The argument runs that specific sanctions will be eliminated anyway by chary legislators. Or that too much at once will kill an embryonic bill. So get something passed now and improve it later.

Unfortunately, history shows this doesn't happen.

For example, the Equal Employment Opportunities Law, effected in 1986 with no punishments to date, has been utterly ineffective in curbing Japan's gender-based salary differentials (still the highest in the OECD).

On the other hand, the antistalker law, promulgated in 2000 with fines and imprisonment, has been powerful in deterrence and enforcement.

If legislated as is, this proposal will be more a statement of principles, not an effective law. Still, the JCLU's Subcommittee on Foreigner Rights should be cheered for taking this important step.

The JCLU needs feedback, so read the whole thing at www. jclu. org , and e-mail them (Japanese and English) at jclu@jclu.org

Japan gets low grade

Japan effected the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1996, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) in 1979. Under these treaties, signatories must submit progress reports every two years, or whenever requested by U.N. committee. This is Japan's report card:

November 1998: U.N. expresses regret that previous recommendations on civil and political rights "have largely not been implemented." It chides Japan for "repeated use of popularity statistics to justify attitudes," reiterating that "human rights standards are not determined by popularity polls."

June 1999: Japan files its first and second CERD reports late, combined as one report.

March 2001: U.N. includes Japan in a report on five nations "whose reports are excessively overdue" -- in the company of Algeria, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, and Sudan. Reprimands Japan for not adopting "specific legislation to outlaw racial discrimination."

October 2001: Japan responds to March 2001 U.N. report. "The government does not think that Japan is currently in a situation where dissemination of racial discriminatory ideas or incitement of racial discrimination are conducted to the extent that the government must consider taking legislative measures . . . at the risk of unjustly atrophying lawful speech."

June 2003: Human rights groups file a counter report to Japan's responses on October 2001, which remains unanswered by the Japanese government to this day. Japan's third periodic CERD report, due 2002, is again late.

Death in committee

Here is one case study on how Japan's legislative process treats grassroots inputs:

Jan. 13, 2000: Members of local and national NGOs and other concerned citizens submit a petition to the Otaru City Assembly (Hokkaido), calling for the establishment of a local ordinance banning racial discrimination within Otaru City's jurisdiction. The proposal includes punishments of fines and imprisonment. This after several bathhouses erected "Japanese Only" signs, refusing entry to all foreigners since 1993.

Repeated demands submitted to Otaru City to draft its own ordinance were rejected outright by Otaru's mayor.

February-March, 2000: After NGOs and citizens lobby Otaru Assembly people, each political party abstains from giving a clear "yes" or "no" vote on passing the petition to the Assembly floor (only the Japan Communist Party votes in favor).

March 24, 2000: Otaru City Assembly officially notifies NGOs that the petition has been put on "continuous deliberation" status in committee.

April 30, 2003: After three years, Otaru City Assembly officially notifies the author that with the election of a new committee, said petition has been voided. Notification invites petitioners to resubmit a new version.

Death in committee ultimately happens to similar petitions submitted to Hokkaido port cities of Wakkanai and Monbetsu (where similar sign-posted exclusions have continued for years) and the Hokkaido Prefectural Government.

No notification ever comes from these bodies regarding the status of these petitions.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.