A Japanese Perspective

Japan’s human rights policies, freighted with a historical baggage that South Koreans are well-aware of, are subtle, nuanced – and ultimately, quite frustrating. Governments in Tokyo continue to wrestle with the appropriate weight to give human rights in foreign policy. While recognizing that Japan’s status as a leading industrialized nation demands rhetorical support (at least) for human rights, governments have not linked those policies to overseas development assistance, preferring to emphasize economic growth and the stability it creates.

As China has ascended, however, Japanese governments have stressed the importance of democracy and rule of law to help differentiate among states. The Abe Shinzo cabinets have leaned heavily on such values: it is not called a “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific for nothing. Yet even in that context, Tokyo’s commitment to human rights is not consistent: The government acknowledges that such policies get a mixed reception elsewhere in the world, and it fears alienating potential allies with too heavy an emphasis on human rights. That realism also extends to relations with China itself: Japan trumpets its commitment to those values to make clear its contrast with China, but Tokyo is slow to use human rights as a cudgel against Beijing. It prefers to moderate those policies to maintain dialogue and economic relations.

A deepening commitment

Officially, Japan’s commitment to human rights is clear and unequivocal. The Foreign Ministry states: “Japan firmly believes that the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate interest of the international community… Japan also affirms that the human rights of all people should be respected, regardless of their countries’ cultures, traditions, political and economic systems and levels of socio-economic development, even if there are differences in their processes and speed of achievement with regard to human rights protection.”1

In practice, however, Japan has equivocated. It is not that Tokyo governments have been indifferent to human rights in their foreign policies; rather, they have either pushed other priorities – regional peace – or pursued those ends through other means. Japan’s economic growth required a peaceful and stable region, and Tokyo was reluctant to press other governments on democracy and human rights policies for fear of unleashing destabilizing forces in those countries.2 Tokyo’s failure to emphasize human rights, relative to the United States and Europe, also reflected the country’s own developmental trajectory: Japanese leaders had internalized a belief that developing countries are more likely to improve governance, human rights, democracy, and the like indirectly through economic development.3

By the end of the Cold War, however, Japan recognized that its policy needed revision. In 1989, Japan had become the world’s largest provider of overseas development assistance (ODA), and the prominence of economic considerations in its foreign policy perpetuated the view of Tokyo as a narrowly focused actor that failed to acknowledge larger responsibilities in the international system. In 1992, Japan adopted the ODA Charter, which explicitly referred to democracy as a consideration in foreign aid. A little over a decade later, the charter was amended to further emphasize human rights and democracy. The first Abe government in 2006-7 continued to refine this normative emphasis as it promoted an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in Asia based on values such as democracy, rule of law and basic human rights.4 Some critics consider this position less a shift and more of a new direction for Japanese diplomacy.5 When Abe returned to the Kantei in 2012, values became even more deeply embedded in Japan’s foreign policy as strategists determined that promotion and protection of human rights had become a national security concern.6  

Southeast Asia and selling a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

The Abe administration doubled down on the values dimension of its foreign policy as it promoted its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” First articulated by Abe during his first term as prime minister (in a speech in Delhi in 2007), FOIP became the organizing concept for regional engagement in Tokyo and Washington when President Donald Trump embraced the concept during his first trip to Asia in 2017. While its meaning and content remain unclear, two signifiers are critical. The first is the geographic scope, extending the previously operative Asia-Pacific theater westward to the Indian Ocean and, in the Japanese mindset, to the African coast. This expansive geographic construct makes India a natural partner, an inclusion made even more obvious by the use of the phrase “free and open,” which would, in the political context at least, also include Delhi, the world’s largest democracy.

Japan insists that FOIP provides a compelling organizing principle for regional relations. Officially, it is intended to complement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),7 a multitrillion-dollar Chinese project that will link that country to neighboring regions, facilitate trade and communications all the way to Europe — and “coincidentally” spread Beijing’s influence as it builds infrastructure along those routes. Whether couched in the language of economic security – the need to ensure that trade routes remain open – or a more normative approach, “free and open” is intended to pose a stark contrast with “business as usual” as practiced by Beijing.

Southeast Asian nations are not comfortable with that choice. For strategic reasons, they reject being forced to take sides between China and the West. There is, after all, the possibility of getting it wrong. More importantly, though, they prefer to preserve room for diplomatic maneuver, which comes with being able to play Beijing off Tokyo and Washington. Moreover, many Southeast Asian governments are ambivalent about making values and human rights a prominent consideration in regional relations. The Cambodian government has been condemned for its authoritarianism and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s iron grip on power. The Thai government’s democratic credentials have been stained since the 2014 coup. After making real progress toward democracy, Myanmar has been backsliding and its treatment of its Rohingya population has triggered a UN investigation and international condemnation. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has also been roundly condemned.

Human Rights Watch noted that in 2019 Japan, unlike other leading democracies, continued to provide election assistance – about $7 million — to the Phnom Penh government despite dissolution of the leading opposition party and a crackdown on civil society and almost all dissent. After the election, which was widely dismissed as unfair, Tokyo refused to criticize the results, even though Hun Sen’s party took all parliamentary seats. The human rights NGO also condemned Japan’s decision to welcome the Myanmar government’s creation of an “independent commission of inquiry” that would look into abuses committed in 2017 by the country’s military and Rohingya militants. Most of the rest of the world consider the commission an attempt to deflect or delegitimate a UN fact-finding mission that is looking into the same events.8

A foreign ministry official confided in 2018 that Japan’s chief priority was finding allies among regional nations to contain the spread of Chinese influence. If that means blunting the values dimension of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and going easy on human rights, Tokyo is prepared to do so. It must be noted, however, that well before China’s rise was a concern, Japanese governments played down human rights when engaging certain countries: During the 1990s, Washington and Tokyo often clashed over how to deal with Myanmar’s military junta, with Japanese decision-makers focused on the country’s rich natural resources and its strategic location as Americans decried its systematic human rights abuses. Japan argued that it was more important, and ultimately more valuable, to maintain channels of communication to allow for the retention of influence than it was to isolate and punish the Yangon government.    

Not so hard on Hong Kong

Japan’s ambivalence has been on display in Tokyo’s response to the unrest surrounding China’s imposition of national security legislation upon Hong Kong, a move that many have denounced as a violation of Beijing’s commitment to (and international agreement to protect) the special administrative region’s status as part of “one country, two systems.” Protests began in the spring of 2019 when the Hong Kong Legislative Council debated an extradition bill that threatened to erode the city’s judicial sovereignty. Protests expanded in size and focus throughout the summer, forcing withdrawal of the bill, but their anger persisted, and demonstrators then demanded apologies for arrests during the summer as well as broader political rights. In October 2019, during a joint press conference with China’s vice president Wang Qishan, Abe expressed deep concern over the situation in the city, while stressing the importance of allowing a free and open Hong Kong to flourish under the “two systems” principle.

In the spring of 2020, Beijing resumed its push for national security legislation. Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu expressed deep concern on May 28, the day that China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) introduced the new law. The US, Britain, Australia, and Canada released a much more pointed joint statement that same day, charging that the move “would curtail the Hong Kong people’s liberties, and in doing so, dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy.” Media reports highlighted a rift between Tokyo and its G7 partners, prompting Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide to deny any gap or “disappointment” in Tokyo’s response.9 Nothing deterred Beijing, however; the bill was adopted by the NPC shortly after and was added to Hong Kong’s Basic Law the follow day, a move that Suga called “regrettable.”

As international indignation grew, Japan took the lead in drafting a statement by G7 nations to condemn China’s decision. On June 18, G7 foreign ministers issued a joint statement expressing “grave concern” over issues in Hong Kong. Some observers argued that the G7 was a shield for Japan, and Tokyo could sign on to a multinational statement that it could not issue by itself.10 Other G7 countries have imposed sanctions against China, such as ending trade benefits afforded the city state, extending to it the arms embargos in place against the mainland, and suspending extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Japan has restricted itself to expressions of concern and regret.11

The China question

Equivocation on Hong Kong reflects Tokyo’s broader ambivalence when it comes to dealing with China. Japan, like every other Asian nation, is conflicted by China’s rise: It faces physical threats to its national security – Chinese vessels regularly enter Japan’s territorial waters; over 100 consecutive days this summer near the Senkakus, islands disputed by Japan and China – while it depends on China for economic growth – China accounts for 20 percent of Japanese exports and a third of its tourists. (In distinction from other Asian nations, however, Japan competes with Beijing for regional leadership. That sharpens Tokyo’s dilemma.)

The allure of China’s market has long tempted Japanese business, but national strategists understood that they needed good relations with their neighbor and to avoid at all costs an implacably hostile adversary that dominated the Asian landmass. Hopes of normalizing relations and building good relations with Beijing were blocked by the anticommunist inclinations of successive US governments – until Richard Nixon stunned Tokyo along with the rest of the world with his opening to China in 1972. Once the door was open, Tokyo seized the opportunity to build a positive forward-looking relationship. It supported Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and led efforts to ease China’s international isolation in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s rise triggered concern, but Tokyo remain convinced that development and access were a better tool to promote stability than condemnation and isolation.

With a full plate of issues to discuss and dispute, Tokyo must pick its fights wisely. Hong Kong’s importance pales beside that of the Senkakus. The readouts from high-level meetings make clear that Japanese leaders are more inclined to focus on territorial claims than human rights – as occurred in October 2019 when Abe met Vice President Wang.12 In addition, tensions in the bilateral relationship have pushed Tokyo and Beijing to seek common ground and sideline issues that might distract or detract from that effort: Each government usually has an objective for which it was prepared to trade: China wanted a successful G20 summit in 2016 and downplayed tensions with Japan to ensure Abe’s attendance. In 2019 and early 2020, the overriding Japanese concern was the long-sought state visit to Japan by President Xi Jinping. In both cases, the big picture demanded the subordination of “minor issues,” and in Japanese eyes, that includes human rights.

This could be changing, however. A younger bipartisan group of politicians, both more nationalist and internationalist, is ready to take a harder line against China. They are more nationalist in that they are not cowed by Japan’s brutal occupation of China and will criticize Beijing for its human rights abuses. They are more internationalist in that they believe in universal standards and will criticize China for its human rights abuses.13 They have demanded that Abe condemn China’s actions in Hong Kong even if it means forcing the cancellation of the Xi visit (already postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak). Thus far, they have been over-ridden by the pro-business faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party but that power struggle continues. 


Surveying Japan’s aid policy, one authoritative analysis concluded that “Japan has neither actively recommended its neighbors to respect human rights, protection of minorities, and rule of law (except one that applies to territorial disputes Japan is involved) nor adopted policy based on democratic peace…”14 This outlook reflects a lower priority attached to human rights in general as well as a belief that the ends pursued through strong support for human rights can be better achieved through other indirect means. Pragmatism also figures strongly in Japanese thinking: Policy makers accept that they have limited leverage to change domestic policies in other countries; they are more focused on maintaining access for both corporate and strategic purposes, and often have more pressing items on bilateral agendas.

Japan’s relationship with the US can also encourage Tokyo to take a lower profile. Washington’s promotion of human rights can lead to a division of labor in which Tokyo plays “good cop” as US counterparts take a hard line. Finally, the complexities of Japan’s relationship with China encourage Tokyo to soft-pedal human rights in dealing with Beijing as well as other regional governments: the desire to contain the spread of Chinese influence drives Japan to downplay values if they threaten to drive a wedge between Tokyo and those other potential partners – even as Japan trumpets those values as the primary distinction between itself and China.

Pragmatism has provided Tokyo the flexibility it needs to navigate the inconsistencies of the Trump administration’s human rights policy. Trump’s mindset mirrors Japan’s business-first approach. The president has shown little interest in human rights and subordinates those concerns to his goals of fixing trade imbalances and striking economic deals. According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the US president did not want to get involved in Hong Kong, told Chinese leader Xi that the mass internment of Uyghurs was “exactly the right thing to do,” and subordinated all bilateral concerns to his re-election.15 But as Trump grew disillusioned with Xi over Beijing’s responsibility for the COVID outbreak and the failure of the January 2020 US-China trade deal to make impressive returns, he adopted a harder policy toward China. This has gratified Japanese who worry about Beijing’s increasingly muscular foreign policy.16

Nakayama Yasunori, director of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank, argued that even given the president’s predilections, the Trump administration has taken a harder line toward China on human rights than did the Obama administration. Nakayama credits Vice President Mike Pence’s strong religious faith for pushing US policy in this direction.17 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been equally vocal in supporting human rights, at least in the context of religious freedom (and the practice of Christianity). While some fear that this hard line will foreclose options for Japan, others believe it creates space for Japan’s own diplomatic maneuvering. The question for Japan is how much latitude it will retain if there is a change of government in Washington following the November 2020 ballot, and a Biden administration takes a harder line on human rights and pushes allies and partners to back that policy.

1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan’s Human Rights Commitments and Pledges,” January 2019, https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000175306.pdf

2. Katagiri Nori, “Shinzo Abe’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Japan’s recent achievement and future direction,” Asian Security, May 2019, DOI: 10.1080/14799855.2019.1607304

3. Sasada Hironori, “Resurgence of the ‘Japan Model’? Japan’s Aid Policy Reform and Infrastructure Development Assistance,” Asian Survey, December 2019, DOI: 10.1525/AS.2019.59.6.1044.

4. See for example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “On the ‘Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’:
An address by Taro Aso, March 12, 2007,” https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/pillar/address0703.html

5. Katagiri Nori, “Shinzo Abe’s Indo-Pacific Strategy,” p. 14.

6. Geiger Atsuko, “Japan’s Support for Democracy-Related Issues: Mapping Survey,” Japan Center for International Exchange, 2019, http://www.jcie.or.jp/japan/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Japan-Democracy-Survey-2019.pdf

7. Abe Shinzo, “Policy Speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the 196th Session of the Diet, January 22, 2018,” https://japan.kantei.go.jp/98_abe/statement/201801/_00002.html.

8. “Human Rights Watch World Report 2019: Japan,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/japan

9. Jiji Press, “Suga claims Japan’s response to Hong Kong situation appreciated,” June 8, 2020, https://www.nippon.com/en/news/yjj2020060800401/

10. Robin Harding, “Japan treads a careful path in its dealings with China,” Financial Times, July 29, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/6d1f3280-c225-4893-a5b0-e79d3e208e81

11. Robin Harding, “Japan treads a careful path in its dealings with China.”

12. Cheng Chung Lan, “Hong Kong’s Security Law; How Should Japan Respond?” Nippon, August 14, 2020, https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/g00896/

13. Ota Narumi, “Japan eyes bill to sanction human rights abuses in Hong Kong,” Asahi, July 30, 2020, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/13591720

14. Katagiri Nori, “Shinzo Abe’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

15. “Trump not interested in HK protests, says Bolton,” The Hong Kong Standard, June 19, 2020, https://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/11/220175/Trump-not-interested-in-HK-protests,-says-Bolton

16. Y.A., “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Policy,” The American Interest, April 10, 2020.

17. Nakayama Yasunori, “The Strategic Significance of US Vice President Mike Pence’s Address,” Japan Institute of International Affairs Strategic Comments, November 6, 2018, https://www2.jiia.or.jp/en/article_page.php?id=10