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As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gears up for his trip to Washington late next week, one potential discussion topic could throw a wet blanket over his excitement: Japan’s role in advocating for human rights through diplomacy.

As much as Tokyo is elated over having the first foreign leader to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in person since his inauguration and reaffirmation of Washington’s commitment to national security cooperation, there are worries that the meeting could be used by Biden to compel Suga to augment the Japanese government’s contributions to defending human rights in Asia.

Although the top diplomats of both nations view themselves as defenders of human rights, the reality is much more complex — the two are not entirely on the same page on how to approach the issue. Indeed, while Japan has expressed concerns over China and Myanmar, it is the only member of the Group of Seven that has not deployed sanctions, citing the lack of a legal basis domestically.

The Foreign Ministry appears unwilling to shift its strategy on human rights diplomacy, convinced that its traditional “dialogue and cooperation” approach is sufficient, and it is reluctant to take risky action that could strain relations with other countries.

Alarmed by the Foreign Ministry’s passivity, intraparty and cross-party groups of lawmakers are now applying pressure to shore up the government’s defense of human rights and legally enable the country to use sanctions to punish human rights abuses.

The tug-of-war between the Foreign Ministry and lawmakers, with Suga standing on the sidelines, illustrates the critical juncture confronting Japanese diplomacy — take stronger action to defend human rights in Asia or risk alienating Washington, which sees Tokyo as an indispensable ally in the region.

“Enacting the legislation (to mobilize sanctions) would have a profound impact by sending a message that Japan now has a tool to punish those involved in human rights abuse,” said Shiori Yamao, an opposition Democratic Party for the People politician who co-founded a cross-party group of lawmakers on human rights diplomacy. “I believe it would be better for us to have that tool on our own early, instead of waiting until foreign governments tell us to do so.”

Democratic Party for the People lawmaker Shiori Yamao (left) discusses diplomacy with China with former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (center) and lawmakers in different countries on March 4. | KYODO
Democratic Party for the People lawmaker Shiori Yamao (left) discusses diplomacy with China with former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (center) and lawmakers in different countries on March 4. | KYODO

Japan’s name was conspicuously absent from the list of countries and entities — the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union — that have opted to punish individuals and organizations associated with the Chinese Communist Party and Myanmar’s military. Those punishments have been motivated by images of brutality by the authorities in Myanmar and Hong Kong and reports of forced labor, internment and forced sterilization of the Uyghur ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region.

Myanmar’s military has defied international pressure to restore democratic government, while Beijing has defended its clampdown in Hong Kong and pushed back against accusations of genocide in Xinjiang.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly issued statements denouncing violence in those places and calling for order to be re-established in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in February that human rights are “universal values” and their protection “is a basic responsibility of all countries.”

Japan has deployed sanctions before on national security grounds and when its own citizens were targeted. The Cabinet, for example, on Tuesday approved a two-year extension of the government’s independent sanctions against North Korea. They include banning North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports and maintaining a trade embargo against the isolated nation, based on its missile launches that violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.

In the past, a group of lawmakers, including Suga before he became prime minister, drafted legislation penalizing North Korea for violating human rights after its agents abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s.

When Russia annexed Crimea by force in 2014, Japan suspended the issuance of visas to close to two dozen individuals and froze assets of more than 60 individuals by invoking its immigration law and Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law.

Nevertheless, the central government has argued that Japan cannot resort to sanctions strictly based on human rights violations in foreign countries, notably in connection with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, apartheid in South Africa and the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The current debate revolves around whether Japan should adopt legislation to apply sanctions in such cases, as is done in other countries.

Taking the form of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in the U.S., such legislation authorizes governments to ban entry to the country and employ economic sanctions. Similar laws have been approved in Canada and the EU and have been cited as a legal basis for a series of sanctions.

The Foreign Ministry’s stance on enacting a similar law in Japan is tepid at best.

Motegi said in February that while Japan calls out cases of serious human rights violations, it has encouraged independent initiatives for countries that “are endeavoring to achieve democratization and the defense of human rights through bilateral dialogues and cooperation.”

In addition, the foreign minister merely said that Japan “needs to constantly analyze and consider” the necessity of adopting legislation akin to the Magnitsky Act, hinting that the ministry would not throw its weight behind it anytime soon.

Asked about Japanese participation in multilateral action, the government’s top spokesman Katsunobu Kato on Tuesday parroted Motegi’s February remark but added Japan will maintain its current course.

“The heart of the matter is to improve human rights conditions, and we think it’s up to individual nations to make a decision on what is an effective way to meet that purpose based on their own positions,” Kato said. “What’s important in international society is to work strongly to encourage changes in unison, so we’ll respond accordingly by communicating with other countries, such as the U.S.”

Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor with a focus on international security at Keio University in Tokyo, said that Foreign Ministry officials’ hesitancy underscores the ministry’s strong opposition to enacting a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act.

The ministry, he said, is confident of its diplomatic achievements through dialogue and cooperation, as seen in Myanmar before a military coup in February. Japan facilitated its diplomatic approach in Myanmar with massive economic aid, which Tokyo believed was helping to carve out a course toward elections and a democratically elected government.

“Changing such an approach would result in tremendous resistance within the ministry,” Tsuruoka said. “Imposing sanctions over human rights issues could be seen as Japan sabotaging stable, smooth and amicable relations with a country on its own initiative, which would be regarded as a tremendous risk (among officials).”

The U.S. understands the limits of Japanese human rights diplomacy, but the Foreign Ministry would have no choice but to act if the U.S. chose to reinforce pressure on Japan, Tsuruoka said. In such a case, the Foreign Ministry could reluctantly broaden its interpretation of the foreign currency law to deploy sanctions, he predicted.

Now learning about Japan’s stance, Americans and Europeans are baffled at its weak-kneed attitude on human rights issues, he said.

In the meantime, lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party establishing an intraparty group on human rights diplomacy in February. A subsidiary of the party’s foreign affairs division, the group will host discussions on human rights issues in China and Myanmar and will produce a proposal by June, before the G7 summit meeting in the U.K.

Masahisa Sato, the director of the Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs division, speaks at its meeting at the party's headquarters in Tokyo on Feb. 9. | KYODO
Masahisa Sato, the director of the Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs division, speaks at its meeting at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Feb. 9. | KYODO

Masahisa Sato, an Upper House lawmaker and the director of the LDP’s foreign affairs division, said human rights diplomacy is one area within Japan’s foreign policy toward China that needs to be bolstered.

The atmosphere inside the party has changed as well, he said, noting that he and his fellow conservative lawmakers organized the group without facing active opposition. Japanese conservatives have been split on China for years, with those who long to preserve a solid economic partnership facing off against others wary of its swelling diplomatic and military might.

“I don’t think the current course of action is sustainable … and the atmosphere inside the party, too, is a recognition that maintaining the status quo would be difficult,” Sato said, explaining the rationale for creating the group on human rights diplomacy.

Sato declined to reveal the proposal’s contents but is planning to mention Japan’s underdeveloped intelligence-collecting capabilities as an impediment to advancing human rights diplomacy. Setting up a framework for exchanging intelligence on human rights abuses is crucial, the lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, Yamao’s cross-party group of lawmakers on human rights diplomacy aims to draw up a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act or adopt a similar resolution. The group includes representatives from all parties.

In an interview with The Japan Times in late March, Yamao said lawmakers should play a more active role in diplomacy, arguing that the legislation’s enactment would expand the Foreign Ministry’s options for responding to human rights issues.

“What’s needed the most now is a movement like a cross-party group from the legislative branch to encourage the executive branch,” she said.

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