Living Together: Minority People and Disadvantaged Groups in Japan
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The world is home to 192 independent states, more than 600 living language groups, and 5,000 ethnic groups.  National and ethnic minorities seek regional autonomy, political representation, language rights, land claims, immigration policy reform, and/or ethnic education.  In addition to national minorities and ethnic groups, women, gay men and lesbians, and people with disabilities also use the framework of multiculturalism to seek group-specific rights to eliminate discrimination and prejudice.  The Human Rights Covenants guarantee the right of minorities to have their own culture and to have that culture respected.  The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination supports affirmative action programs as temporary and remedial measures for minority people to gain socioeconomic parity with the majority. 

The United Nations put in force the Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees in 1967; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969; the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights in 1976; the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid in 1976; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1987; the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990; and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 2003.

Japan signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Economic Covenant) in 1979, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1995, and the International Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1999.

In Japan, the indigenous Ainu and the Okinawans have suffered from inequality and discrimination, as have Korean permanent residents and foreign “newcomers,” and Buraku people, descendents of former “outcastes.”  The Ainu and the Okinawans once had their respective self-governing regions, while foreign nationals are ethnic minorities.  The Ainu, the Okinawans, Korean permanent residents, and Buraku people are “involuntary” minorities “who were brought into their present society through slavery, conquest or colonization” (Ogbu 1991:9), while foreign nationals, newcomers, are “voluntary” minorities, who entered Japan voluntarily.  Disadvantaged minority groups include women, children, the elderly and the disabled (Hōmushō 1997).  The 1993 national poll shows that the most pressing human rights problems involved children (82.4%), the disabled (69.2%), foreigners living in Japan (45.4%), the Buraku problem (36.1%) and Ainu problem (18.6%) (Buraku Kaihō 1997:149).

According to the Japanese Constitution, “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin” (Article 14, Paragraph 1).  However, only after the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1979 did the government renounce the traditional assertion of Japan’s ethnic homogeneity under pressure from the domestic and international human rights movements and formally guarantee the protection of the human rights of minorities and disadvantaged people.

Since postmodernism and multiculturalism have gained popularity in academia as well as in popular culture, Buraku people, resident Koreans, the Ainu, and women are more empowered than ever, and asserting their rights in a political avenue rather than quietly assimilating to the majority culture.  Minority groups demand their rights in cooperation with support groups and human rights NGOs. 

The Buraku Liberation League (BLL) has led the human rights movement in cooperation of the government, other minority groups, and the international human rights community.  Since the 1980s, the government and the BLL came to understand the Buraku problem as a human rights problem and promoted human rights education in an effort to eliminate discrimination against Buraku people and other minorities.  In 1988, the BLL supported the establishment of a non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), which joined the roster of the NGOs of the United Nations in 1993.  The BLL emphasized “human rights, social welfare, and environment” in its 1997 platform, replacing the class-conflict ideology that had been the basis of its 1984 platform (Asahi Shinbun (AS) May 20, 1997). 

For the 1995 fiscal year, the Ministry of Justice spent 425 million yen on human rights promotion.  The Prime Minister’s Office spent 1.1 billion yen on lectures, workshops, and funded the production of movies, television, and radio programs for national, prefectural, and municipal civil servants (Sōmuchō 1995:110-112). 

Some domestic human rights NGOs, being dissatisfied with the government’s dismissing of the problems of minority groups in its reports to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, appealed to the international community by sending rebuttals to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.  The U.N. Human Rights Committee and the international human rights movements have raised concerns about discrimination in Japan, particularly against Korean permanent residents, members of Buraku communities, the Ainu, women, foreign residents, people with disabilities, children born out of wedlock, Asian migrant prostitutes, migrant workers, returnees from China, and wartime “comfort women.”

Pressured by both domestic and international human rights movements, the government endorsed the U.N. Decade of the Human Rights Education (1995-2004), and enacted the Law of Promotion of Measures for Human Rights Protection in 1996.  Symposiums, meetings, and lectures, have been conducted during the Human Rights Week every December in schools and communities all over Japan. 

In accordance with the 1996 Law of Promotion of Measures for Human Rights Protection, the Council for Human Rights Promotion was formed in March 1997, and charged with researching and deliberating on human rights education and promotion activities, and seeking redress for victims of human rights violations.  The Council for Human Rights Promotion released a report on human rights education in 1999 and a proposal on the relief measures for the victims of human rights violations by 2002.  Local and prefectural governments adopted an ordinance for the protection and promotion of human rights.  The ordinance proclaims the elimination of all forms of discrimination against foreign residents, people with disabilities, and women. 

At the district level, the human rights section in the legal affairs bureau is responsible for human rights protection.  Commissioners who are nominated by a mayor and work under the Ministry of Justice have offered counseling, aids for victims, public education campaigns, and legal assistance.  Furthermore, free and confidential consultation, along with interpreters and translators, is provided for documented and undocumented foreigners, in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Kōbe.

In 1997, 13,956 human rights commissioners (3,577 of whom were women) had handled 612,558 human rights consultations, and concluded that human rights infringements had occurred in 16,148 cases.  “Although persons found to have violated human rights were not obligated to act on the commissioners’ recommendations, in practice they tended to do so” (U.N. Human 1998b).  However, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recommends that Japan establish a mechanism for investigating violations of human rights that was independent of human rights commission agents who worked for the Ministry of Justice.  Human rights commissioners are under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, whose powers are limited to issuing recommendations (U.N. Human 1998a). 

In 2001, the Council for Human Rights Promotion proposed the establishment of an independent Human Rights Committee to mediate, arbitrates, advises, publicizes, sues, and investigates cases of discrimination, abuse, and human rights violations.  The Committee has the authority to impose administrative and criminal penalties upon those who fail to comply with its orders.

Despite the government’s promotion of human rights awareness, less than 30 percent of the general public are aware of what human rights commissioners are doing.  Furthermore, most of the contents of counseling resemble litigation among family members and neighbors (Hōmushō 1997; Sōrifu 1997a).  Although the government’s efforts have been applauded as a good start, they have not yet reached the expectations of minority groups and international human rights movements.

Twenty-three non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute, issued reports describing the actual performance of the government on human rights issues, prior to the Committee’s meetings.  In addition, more than 50 delegates from fifteen NGOs lobbied the Committee members at the U.N. European headquarters in a bid to influence the Committee’s conclusion against the fourth state report to the Human Rights Committee in 1998 (Buraku Liberation News November 1998).  The government cannot ignore the role of NGOs or its international reputation.

Especially since the start of the U.N. Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), the Japanese government has promoted comprehensive human rights education (jinken kyōiku) to teach about minority cultures and history in schools and in communities.  Human rights education in Japan is similar to multicultural education in the United States, which encourages students to learn about minorities from their perspectives.  The term tabunka kyōiku (“multicultural education”) appeared in Japan in the 1990s when an unprecedented number of foreign children entered Japanese schools. 

Human rights education started in 1969 as Dōwa education for the elimination of discrimination against the Buraku.  Human rights education in schools is primarily taught through textbook-centered social science classes.  After successful lobbies by minority activists, the social science textbooks now include descriptions of the histories and cultures of minority peoples in their own words.  Many schools have an annual Human Rights Meeting during Human Rights Week in December, and have special events to discuss the human rights of minority peoples through films, lectures, performances, essay writing and other activities.  In 2000, the Law on the Promotion of Human Rights Education and Human Rights Awareness-Raising was enacted.

This book discusses the status of the following minority people and groups: the Ainu, the Okinawans, Buraku people, Korean permanent residents, foreign newcomers, women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

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