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Japan Urged to Address Discrimination Against Ainu and Other Indigenous Peoples during Universal Periodic Review

By Dev Kumar Sunuwar (Koĩts-Sunuwar, CS Staff)

On January 31, 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group held the Universal Periodic Review of Japan's human rights record. The Universal Periodic Review is a process through which all UN member countries assess each other's human rights circumstances in light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights treaties, and other mechanisms and provide recommendations for areas that need to be improved. This session was the fourth review for Japan since 2008.

During Japan’s review, 115 countries made about 300 recommendations urging Japan to abolish the death penalty; establish national human rights institutions in accordance with the Paris Principles; enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation; eliminate discrimination against women and sexual exploitation of women and girls; ensure gender equality, including rights of minorities such as persons with disabilities, immigrants, and persons of all sexual orientations; provide adequate protection and support for foreign laborers; and protect the human rights of prisoners.

Additional recommendations included taking more effective measures against the influence of COVID-19 on vulnerable people, including the poor; halting plans to discharge radioactive water from the nuclear power plant; increased transparency of scientific information; providing greater assistance to Fukushima evacuees; and strengthening policies of refugee and immigrant protection, including the protection of human rights for detainees in immigration detention facilities. Japan was also urged to ratify International Labor Organization Convention No. 169 to adequately address the issues of Indigenous Peoples of Japan. 

In the stakeholder report on Japan that Cultural Survival submitted along with our partner organizations, Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewan Peoples, All Okinawa Council for Human Rights, and Nirai Kanai nu Kai (Indigenous Peoples’ Organization for the Repatriation and Reburial of Ryukyuan Human Remains into original Ryukyuan Graves), we joined UN member states in recommending to Japan to ratify ILO Convention No. 169. We also focused on the issues of ongoing human rights violations, including violations of rights to self-determination, violations of rights to ancestral land and territories, violations of fishing and subsistence rights, violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Japanese law and policy, violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to ancestral remains, and violations of Indigenous women’s rights.


Taking the floor, Colombia made four main recommendations to Japan: “Firstly, to create a national human rights institution with the broad mandate for the promotion and protection of human rights, keeping with the spirit of the Paris principles. Secondly, step up efforts to eliminate discrimination against Ainu [Peoples] in employment, education, and access to services and adopt measures to protect their right to land, natural resources, their culture, and their language. Thirdly, ratify ILO Convention No. 169 on the rights of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples. And fourthly, ratify the optional protocol for eliminating all forms of discrimination against women.” Venezuela also echoed Colombia and called on Japan “to ratify ILO Convention No. 169 to address the issues of Indigenous Peoples of Japan.”

In Japan, there are primarily two Indigenous Peoples: the Ainu, who live in the northern region of the Japanese Archipelago, particularly Hokkaido, and the Ryukyans, also known as Okinawans, who also identify as Lewchewans or Uchinanchu and mostly live in the southern region of Ryukyu/Okinawa and Kagoshima Islands. On June 8, 2008, the Japanese parliament unanimously recognized the Ainu as an Indigenous Peoples of Japan. However, the Japanese government has not officially recognized Ryukyans/Okinawans, despite their long standing demand for recognition. Many countries raised concerns about the discrimination against Ainu and Ryukyuans/Okinawans in accessing employment, education, and vital services.

The Russian Federation noted the many problems on the rights of national ethnic minorities, including the “widespread discrimination suffered by the national minorities the Ainu, Ryukyu/Okinawa, and others living in the northern and southern parts of Japan, and recommended Japan “to undertake the comprehensive legislative and practical measures to combat any forms of discrimination against national ethnic minorities” as well as “continuing to enhance the judiciary, including upholding the rights of persons deprived of liberty.” Poland recommended Japan “to initiate policy review with the intention to abolish the death penalty, and at the same time welcome’s Japan’s commitment to human rights and promote human rights standards and especially recognize the efforts of Japan to protect and promote the rights of Ainu Indigenous Peoples.” 

Responding to the concerns raised repeatedly by many countries on the issue of discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and minorities in Japan, Imafuku Takao, Deputy Assistant Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “regarding the Ainu people, Japan’s government has adopted the Ainu Measures Promotion Act which came into effect in May 2019 [and] prescribes that Ainu people are ‘Indigenous Peoples of Japan.’ Article 4 of the Ainu Measures Promotion Act explicitly prohibits discrimination against Ainu People on the grounds that they are Ainu.” He also noted that “for further promotion of Ainu history and upopoi (culture), the National Ainu Museum and Park was opened in July 2020 as a national center for revitalizing and developing Ainu culture.” 

Hate Speech and Disinformation

Japan has a history of discrimination against the Ainu, Ryukyu/Okinawa, and other minority groups, such as the Burakumin. Many countries expressed their concerns particularly on the rise in hate speech against these groups, which has been documented by human rights activists and media and has included demonstrations, rallies, and online hate speech. The Japanese government has been criticized for its slow or lack of response to these issues and for failing to provide legal protection for victims of hate speech. In May 2016, parliament passed the Hate Speech Elimination Act in an effort to eliminate unfair discriminatory speech and behavior against persons migrating from outside Japan. Many countries called on Japan to adopt broadly applicable anti-discrimination laws that prohibit acts of discrimination and hate speech.

Australia commended Japan’s efforts to strengthen anti-discrimination laws protecting Japan’s Indigenous Ainu Peoples and further recommended Japan to “resume the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution, ensuring its full compliance with the Paris Principles and to expand the scope of the Hate Speech Elimination Act to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” Similarly, Belarus recommended “to strengthen government policies to prevent hate speech and discrimination on religious, ethnic, and other grounds.” Namibia recommended Japan “continue to pursue efforts to end the discrimination against persons with disabilities and take effective measures to combat racial discrimination and hate speech.”


Despite repeated demands, the Japanese government has not yet amended the Hate Speech Elimination Act of 2016, which was created explicitly to address the role of the internet in hate speech, nor has it criminalized serious forms of hate speech. Responding to the concerns raised by several countries, Takao said, “Hate speech is not tolerated. The Japanese Constitution, which was enacted on May 3, 1947, guarantees the freedom of speech, press, and expression in Article 21. This provision states that freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated. This means that Japanese citizens have the right to express their opinions freely without fear of censorship or government interference. However, like all rights, freedom of expression also comes with some limitations. For instance, it cannot be used to promote hate speech or incite violence.”

Takao added, “regarding so-called ‘hate speech,’ discriminatory speech and behavior that unilaterally excludes the persons of specific ethnicities or nationalities is not to be tolerated. The government of Japan has been cooperating and collaborating with relevant ministries and agencies as well as local governments to carry out awareness raising activities and to conduct human rights counseling, investigations, and remedial activities concerning human rights violations, including damage caused by hate speech either online or offline. Japan has also made an effort to include NGOs and government agencies to carry out awareness raising activities on hate speech.”

Human Trafficking and Discrimination 

The government of Japan has taken some steps to address discrimination and marginalization of Ainu Indigenous Peoples. In 2019, Japan enacted the Ainu Promotion Act, which recognizes the Ainu as Indigenous Peoples and promotes their culture and rights. However, critics argue that the Act falls short of addressing the historical injustices and systematic discrimination faced by the Ainu, and point out that the Ryukyan/Okinawaan Indigenous Peoples have not received the same level of recognition and protection as the Ainu. 

The Japanese government has not officially recognized the Ryukyuan/Okinawan as Indigenous Peoples, despite their distinct language, culture, and history. This lack of recognition has resulted in limited or no consultation and engagement with the Ryukyuan/Okinaawan on issues that affect their rights and well being. Both the Ainu and Ryukyuan/Okinawan have limited consultation and decision making power regarding policies and programs that affect their communities. This lack of meaningful consultation has resulted in the neglect of Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, including their language, history, and culture.

During Japan’s review, many countries repeatedly raised their concerns about various forms of discrimination, marginalization, and injustices against the Ainu and Ryukyuan/Okinawan Indigenous Peoples and other minorities of Japan in the areas of employment, education, and access to services, including unequal pay for women and an increase in human trafficking, and recommended the government adopt anti-discrimination laws. Many countries also raised concerns about the high level of discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, specifically women.

Peru called on Japan “to make continuous efforts to combat human trafficking,” including measures to end impunity and investigate cases of trafficking with a victim-centered approach. It also called on Japan to “take necessary legislative reforms to attain equal pay for men and women for equal work and to step up efforts currently underway to eliminate discrimination against Ainu and Ryukyuan/Okinawan [Peoples] in employment, education, and access to services, and to protect their rights to land and natural resources.”  Sweden recommended Japan “adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law in order to strengthen the protection of human rights of all members of Japanese society, including women and children, persons belonging to ethnic, social, and sexual minorities, and persons with disabilities.” Ireland recommended the Japanese government "take measures to combat direct and indirect discrimination against women and girls.” 

Countries commended Japan for its commitment to human rights and progress made since its last Universal Periodic Review in 2017. They also praised Japan for making a significant effort to  eliminate trafficking via joining the State Party to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in 2017, while recommending further comprehensive and enforceable anti-discrimination legislation.

Thailand recommended Japan “to continue its effort to combat trafficking in persons in close cooperation with countries, civil society organizations, and international organizations.” Belgium recommended “to enact comprehensive and enforceable anti-discrimination legislation to prohibit discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, [and] gender, among others.” Cyprus recommended "to enhance legal provisions to combat discrimination against girls and women, step up efforts to combat human trafficking, including to bring perpetrators to proper justice, and increase the penalties for child trafficking.” Kenya recommended Japan “to step up efforts to combat trafficking in persons [and] adopt specific legislation that criminalizes it through proper investigation that results in prosecution.”

In response to these concerns, Takao said: “Article 14(1) of the Japanese Constitution guarantees the principle of equality under the law. This article declares that all individuals are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination. This principle of equality under the law is fundamental to Japan's legal system and is intended to ensure that every person is treated fairly and justly, regardless of their social status, race, gender, religion, or nationality. The article establishes a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and prohibits any form of discrimination in Japan. Article 14(1) has been used to promote the rights of minority groups, such as the Ainu, who are an Indigenous people in Japan. 

It has also been used to challenge discriminatory laws, policies, and practices that violate the principle of equality under the law. However, despite the existence of Article 14(1), Japan has faced criticism for its treatment of certain minority groups and women, highlighting that there is still room for improvement in ensuring true equality under the law. The government has taken steps to address these issues, but there is still work to be done to fully realize [that] the principle of equality under the law in Japan prohibits discrimination in employment [and] education against all.”

Human Rights Institutions

Japan has made significant progress in promoting and protecting human rights, but it continues to face criticism for not establishing human rights institutions with a broad mandate. Many countries raised concerns about Japan’s failure to establish a national human rights institution that is independent from the government.

In Japan, there are bodies dealing with specific human rights issues such as the Human Rights Bureau within the Ministry of Justice, which deals with administrative matters. But, this mechanism has been criticized for lacking independence and not having sufficient powers to investigate and address human rights abuses effectively. The Human Rights Bureau has additionally been criticized for being too closely tied to the government and not having enough power to investigate cases of police brutality and discrimination against minority groups, leading to repeated calls for Japan to establish an independent National Human Rights Institution with a broad mandate.  

Nepal recommended Japan to “establish a national human rights institution with broad mandate and matching resources in line with the Paris Principles and continue its efforts in eliminating all forms of discrimination against minorities, foreigners, and migrant workers.” Similarly, New Zealand recommended “to establish an independent human rights institution to promote and protect human rights.” The Philippines recommended Japan "to step up efforts to establish a national human rights institution with the mandate to act on the complaints on the human rights violations.”

Japan’s delegates responded that Japan is promoting human rights throughout the country, including economic, social, and cultural rights through the Human Rights Bureau under the Ministry of Justice and the Human Rights Volunteers. However, the Japanese government was criticized for failing to establish an independent national human rights institution with proper mechanisms for remedies.