Japan: Protests mobilised to oppose militarisation, gender inequality and revisions to the immigration law
The state of civic space in Japan is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. While the space for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is relatively free, restrictions on press freedom, censorship, as well as discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community have been documented. The government has also imposed tougher penalties for criminal defamation.
Since February 2023, there have been multiple protests against a defence buildup and US bases in Okinawa, for women to keep their surnames, against the G7 Summit Meeting in Hiroshima and revisions to the immigration law. Press freedom concerns remain due to government-approved press clubs and self-censorship.
Protests in Okinawa against defence buildup and US bases
Okinawa is marking the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan after 27 years of American rule on May 15, 1972, amid protests against a continued heavy U.S. military presence and lack of support from the mainland. https://t.co/sz0K7RZyqs— The Associated Press (@AP) May 15, 2022
More than a thousand people marched through Okinawa's prefectural capital on 26th February 2023 protesting the government’s plans to build up its defence capabilities on a group of islands in the country's south, including in the prefecture.
Ahead of the march, some 1,600 people gathered, according to the organiser. The group's 69-year-old executive committee chairperson Takamatsu Gushiken told the rally, "Militarisation is being pushed forward at such a speed that it does not leave leeway for the people of Okinawa to think. We must not resort to shelters or evacuation but choose to stop Okinawa from becoming a battlefield."
After the gathering, participants marched through the streets of Naha while holding signs reading, "Don't make the islands into battlefields!" and "No more military bases."
In May 2023, another protest was held in Okinawa to call for the removal of US bases. The protest was the first in four years to be held with no restrictions on the number of marchers. According to event organisers, including the Okinawa Heiwa Undo (peace movement) Center, about 2,000 people took part in the march.
As previously documented, there have been ongoing protests for several decades against the US military bases in Okinawa. The US has about 26,000 troops spread over several bases in Japan, including some in densely populated areas. The foreign military presence since the end of World War II has contributed to the local economy, but resentment has built over the decades, with locals complaining of the noise and fearing for their safety.
Women protest to demand right to keep surnames
At a rally marking International Women’s Day in March 2023, representatives from dozens of women’s rights groups delivered a joint statement to lawmakers urging them to do more to change the 125-year-old civil code, which forces married couples to choose one surname.
The groups said that the current practice in which most women face social pressure to adopt their husbands’ surnames — a prewar tradition based on paternalistic family values — widens gender inequality.
Public support for a dual-surname option has grown, with surveys showing a majority now supports the option for married couples to keep separate surnames. Some couples have also brought lawsuits saying the current law violates the constitutional guarantee of gender equality since women almost always sacrifice their surnames.
Riot police use excessive force against G7 protesters
Around the G7 Summit Meeting that took place in Hiroshima in May 2023, there were protests by activists who wanted to use the exposure to have their voices of protest heard.
On 19th May 2023, around 300 marched near the summit venue and were escorted by a large number of riot police as they voiced their views on the G7, war and the state of world politics. Miyahara Ryo, the Secretary-General of the Hiroshima March Committee accused the G7 of “engaging in a cycle of aggressive wars throughout the world, exploiting and reaping the maximum benefits from their own workforce and people worldwide.”
Miyahara also accused the G7 countries of sending weapons, including depleted uranium ammunition, to Ukraine and intensifying the war, and of fuelling a confrontation with China.
BBCニュース(動画) - Watch: Japan riot police pin G7 protesters to ground in violent scuffle(日本の機動隊がG7のデモ参加者らと激しい揉み合いに。地面に押さえつけられる参加者も)— 💫T.Katsumi🏳️🌈📢 (@tkatsumi06j) May 22, 2023
On 21st May 2023, various far-left groups held a protest to condemn the G7 Leaders’ Communiqué. According to reports, riot police wrestled people protesting the meeting of world leaders. Police could be seen pinning protesters to the ground. Riot police also reportedly arbitrarily arrested a student for “obstructing the execution of official duties”.
The G7 comprises the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. The meeting included discussion around the war in Ukraine and other foreign policy points - including their relationships with China.
Protests against bill aimed at revising the immigration law
Lawyers, asylum seekers protest in Osaka over planned revision of Japan immigration law - The Mainichi https://t.co/qJjHMYNycy— T. Naka (@nakalegal) May 6, 2021
On 5th and 6th June 2023, protesters in Tokyo rallied against a controversial bill aimed at amending Japan's immigration law. This came as deliberations on the bill were coming to a close in the national legislature (Diet). The bill had already passed the Lower House and was at the time sent to the Upper House.
Under the bill, foreigners who apply for refugee status three or more times will no longer be exempt from deportation, in principle. The current law allows deportation proceedings to be suspended while a person's application is being processed. The government says some people have abused the provision by making repeated filings to avoid deportation.
About 250 people gathered outside the building that houses the Upper House members' offices. The protesters held up boards with slogans. One board read, "Resident status instead of punishment." The demonstrators said they firmly oppose the bill, and they called for an inclusive society.
Despite the protests, the Upper House passed the bill on 8th June. Lawmakers of the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party voted in favor of the bill, as well as two opposition parties, the Democratic Party for the People and Nippon Ishin no Kai. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) opposed the bill on the grounds that it fails to protect the rights of asylum-seekers and doesn’t improve the current treatment of detainees in immigration facilities.
Press freedom concerns remain due to press clubs and self-censorship
Japan was ranked 68th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index published in May 2023. According to RSF, Japan, a parliamentary democracy, upholds the principles of media freedom and pluralism. However, the weight of traditions, economic interests, political pressure and gender inequalities prevent journalists from fully exercising their role of holding the government to account.
Japan's claims to freedom of the press are dented in particular by a system of government-approved press clubs for ministries and the tendency of the media to self-censor at the slightest pressure from the government or influential business partners, according to academics and journalists.
These clubs generally comprise exclusively journalists working at major Japanese media outlets. The members have exclusive access to official sources, and to maintain that access they are required to comply with the official government line. In spite of pressure from foreign media, the system of ‘kisha’ clubs has effectively remained ever since, giving politicians and bureaucrats the power to cow journalists and media companies with the threat of being banned from briefings if they report negative or unflattering stories.