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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Opinion: Japan should become the guardian of freedom and democracy in Asia

  • December 9, 2021
  • , Nikkei , p. 29
  • JMH Translation

By Ichihara Maiko, associate professor at Hitotsubashi University


The international community is turning its attention toward the future of Japan’s diplomacy on human rights and democracy. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio defined such values as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as universal values and indicated a willingness to inherit a “free and open Indo-Pacific initiative” advocated by the government led by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Kishida also clearly expressed his intention to work on human rights issues in the international community and newly created the post of special adviser to the prime minister on international human rights issues.


His proposal for a “new form of capitalism” and the expansion of the middle class is also believed to be based on the weakening of democracy in the world.




The center of international politics is shifting to Asia. China and India are increasing their presence through economic development. Also, many countries have territorial issues with China, leading to a higher risk of conflict. In this age of the hybridization of offensive weapons and the harnessing of influence as a component of offense, the norms and system of democracy have been shaken over the conflicts involving Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea. There is a growing necessity to stabilize the order in this region based on liberal democratic values from the perspective of security policy.




The international community has high hopes for Japan. In the first place, the degree of social polarization and the impact of populism are limited in Japan compared with other democratic nations. But in the past decade or less, the Japanese government became less transparent and less accountable and political intervention in the judicature and the media intensified. This prompted some to argue that the strengthening of democracy means a country gives priority to addressing domestic issues over providing support to other countries. But the international situation is unpredictable. Democracy in Japan and in foreign countries needs to be strengthened in an integrated manner.


It was a positive move for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kishida to create a new post of special adviser to the prime minister on international human rights issues. It is, in a sense, natural for Kishida to appoint former Lower House member Nakatani Gen to the post, given Nakatani’s experience of leading the Nonpartisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy (Diet members’ league for human rights diplomacy).


But Japan needs to take account of the fact that the appointment of Nakatani is externally signaling an anti-Chinese stance. Nakatani represents Japan in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and has led the Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China (JPAC), which is affiliated with the IPAC. The Diet members’ league for human rights diplomacy has been primarily taking up human rights issues in China. It has also dealt with issues in Myanmar and Afghanistan, but the overwhelming emphasis is placed on China.


Of course, it goes without saying that the forced sterilization and forced labor and training of Uyghurs, which should be called genocide, and the depriving of Hong Kongers of their liberty and the enforcement of the Hong Kong national security law are the most serious human rights violations in the world.


But those who deal with such universal values as human rights and democracy occasionally need to show that they are not exploiting these issues for political gain. They are also required to take up human rights violations committed by countries other than China on the same basis and to be fair enough to raise domestic issues about democracy and human rights.


About one month has passed since the launch of the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Kishida. But the Cabinet has yet to show more aggressiveness than past Cabinets in dealing with issues related to human rights and in diplomacy for promoting democracy. Some people reportedly remain hesitant about enacting a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act that will make it possible to impose sanctions on foreign authorities on the grounds of serious human rights violations. As for Belarus’s inhumane attempt to rattle the European Union by sending refugees there, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) of Japan has not independently issued a statement.


There is an opportunity for Japan to proactively commit to these issues – a democracy summit to be held from Dec. 9 to 10. Participating governments will bring their original proposals and implement the proposals toward the second summit scheduled for the same period in 2022.


On an occasion like this, the Japanese government should present effective and aggressive measures to invigorate democracy in and outside Japan. Over the next year leading up to the second summit, Japan will also need to address the issue of violation of sovereignty norms.


Many Asian nations are newly independent and have a stronger attachment to the concept of sovereignty than European nations. It is hoped that the Japanese government will proactively form and utilize frameworks that can overcome the obstacle of noninterference in the internal affairs, such as efforts through a multilateral framework and the sharing of roles with non-state actors, in protecting and revitalizing democracy in Asian nations. (Abridged)

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