The way most Japanese see it, human rights are such an integral part of society now that it’s simply impossible to think the public would ever forfeit them.

Or would they?

Contrary to popular belief, it appears that human rights in Japan are increasingly being put in jeopardy.

Families on welfare were dealt a blow last August when the government forged ahead with the largest benefit cuts since the end of the war.

Ethnic Korean residents in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district are still being terrorized by racist protests in Korea Town.

And among the more than 3,700 people in Japan interviewed for asylum requests last year, only six were granted refugee status.

Despite all this negative news, many Japanese remain unfazed. They tend to think such predicaments are someone else’s problem, the events of people far less privileged and far more marginalized than they are, according to Kanae Doi, founder and head of the Tokyo headquarters of Human Rights Watch.

“It’s not that Japanese people are incapable of identifying with them. It’s just they have never been on the side of minorities themselves so they simply don’t know what it feels like” to be discriminated against, Doi, 38, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

But even in a supposed democracy like Japan, she said, there is a tiny portion of socially marginalized people who feel they are being neglected or discriminated against based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation or economic background.

Looking back on her life, the University of Tokyo graduate said she has always felt a responsibility to help protect minorities.

In 1996, Doi, then 21, became the youngest person to pass the national bar exam. The following year, she set out on a journey to Eritrea, which was then a fledgling Horn of Africa country that had just declared independence in 1993 to end 30 years of annexation under neighboring Ethiopia.

She spent a year there as an international legal volunteer to help lay the groundwork for enacting its criminal laws.

Despite her best efforts, however, just three years after Doi returned to Japan, Eritrea fell under the rule of dictator Isaias Afwerki in 2001.

The 2013 press freedom index released by Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea near the bottom of the list at No. 179 — one notch lower than North Korea.

“I helped the government create its base by setting up its criminal laws. But despite our efforts, this very government later yielded to a despot after all. This experience, sad though it was, taught me we should have approached individual citizens first (rather than those in power), and that only after we have secured their rights can we create a bigger movement from the bottom up.”

With this lesson in mind, Doi, who debuted as a lawyer in 2000, spent much of her time interacting with neglected asylum seekers and visa overstayers, tirelessly fighting for their rights and at times campaigning to revise the refugee law.

After five years as a lawyer, she moved to New York to study more about human rights law. It was during her stay in New York that she first became involved with Human Rights Watch, and began to work for the nongovernmental organization in 2006.

In 2009, after returning to Japan once again, Doi founded the Tokyo chapter of HRW with the self-imposed challenge of raising Japanese awareness of human rights.

“I wanted Japanese people to change the way they take for granted human rights,” she said. “I wanted them to turn their attentions abroad.”

The Tokyo branch currently has five official full-time staff members, including Doi. Most are in their 20s and 30s.

Its chief mission is to keep a close eye on a raft of human rights violations ignored throughout the world and push the Japanese government to play a more active role in addressing them.

While the chapter’s primary focus is transgressions on the global level, Doi said that growing support is gradually allowing the chapter to shift its attention to Japanese issues.

One of the most urgent tasks ahead, she said, is to address the plight of orphans and other children who end up parentless for such reasons as poverty and domestic abuse.

An estimated 40,000 children in Japan live without their parents, but a stunning 90 percent or so are institutionalized instead of being raised by foster parents.

Doi points out that the global norm differs, with most kids put into foster homes.

According to the welfare ministry, as of March 2011 only 12 percent of children without parents in Japan were being brought up in foster homes.

Overseas, the rate was 93.5 percent in Australia, 77 percent in the United States and 71.7 percent in the United Kingdom.

While stressing the situation has improved somewhat lately, Doi said that child care facilities in Japan are often rife with bullying, hazing or even physical abuse from the staffers.

Orphans tend to be susceptible to bullying at school, too, leaving them trapped on both ends — at school and at home, Doi said.

“It’s essential for kids’ sound growth that they’re raised in a ‘secure’ environment, where they can feel confident they’re loved and cared for,” she said, adding that institutionalized children here generally need to fly solo once they turn 18, even though they often lack the financial resources.

Once they’re thrown into the big wide world like that, they have nowhere to turn to and barely have an inkling of how to scrape by. Inevitably, a small number wind up homeless, Doi said.

The Tokyo branch of HRW has conducted its own investigations into the realities of such kids and is set to release this summer what it touts as the first “Japan-focused” report since its debut in 2009, Doi said.

Also struggling to secure their human rights in Japan are racial minorities.

Spearheaded by groups of ultranationalists, a litany of anti-Korean demonstrations have broken out in Shin-Okubo on weekends — a trend that emerged last year amid the friction between Japan and South Korea.

Marchers typically chant streams of hateful invective against residents, vilifying them as “cockroaches” and urging that they be “Holocausted.”

In its initial phase, the protests spurred many pundits and human rights advocates to react furiously to what they saw as an act of downright racism.

But Doi, upset as she was, had a slightly different take. She is resigned to the thought the protesters’ anger is a sign that Japan is finally becoming “normal.”

The country, she said, is no longer the economic superpower it used to be. Japanese are thus feeling less and less privileged as the nation struggles with decades of economic malaise and stiff competition from its Asian rivals.

“People who express their anger like that only do so because they’re in some way or other frustrated with their own life,” Doi said.

Her attention, she said, has instead shifted to a group of more “right-minded” people who stood up and united in their effort to denounce the racist slurs.

“I felt like I found a silver lining in learning about what they were doing. It was a reassuring reminder that there are people out there who are not only right, but brave enough to stand up for others,” she said.

Doi said their vociferous protests against the nationalists seem to have taken root in a spate of anti-nuclear protests that reverberated throughout the nation in response to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture.

“In a way, 3/11 taught people the importance of speaking out on their needs. I hope more people will follow suit, and act at their own initiative to protect their rights from social injustice.”

Significant events in Doi’s life

1996 — Passes national bar exam.
1997 — Departs for Eritrea as a volunteer staff member for nongovernmental organization Peace Boat.
1998 — Graduates from University of Tokyo.
2000 — Becomes a lawyer.
2006 — Graduates from New York University law school and starts working for Human Rights Watch as a fellow.
2009 — Opens Tokyo headquarters of HRW.

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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