International Human Rights Law in Japan: The Cultural Factor Revisited

40 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2010

Date Written: November 26, 2010


The persistence of the debate opposing universality of human rights and cultural relativism explains that many problems met when implementing human rights in a non-Western country are given a "cultural" reason. Japan has been described for decades as being "unique" by sources both outside and within the country. This has contributed to a viewpoint where human rights standards, if not the rule of law itself, are seen as being largely alien to the Japanese system, society and individuals. Therefore, human rights violations are seen as defensible, or at least understandable, or even downright inevitable and enduring.

This article tries to propose another approach to culture and human rights in Japan moving from an academic debate regarding the existence of an "unique Japan" mindset distrustful of the international human rights discourse, to an analysis of the political and social use of this discourse by authorities and social movements in the context of power plays regarding legal and social change.

Part I sums up the enduring debate opposing the promoters of cultural relativism and the proponents of the universality of human rights. Special focus will be put on the case of "Asian values" at a time where the principal advocates of this theory, Southeast Asian countries, have decided to set up the first regional human rights mechanism in that region. The practice of international bodies on the role of culture and implementation of international human rights will be discussed.

Part II analyzes the case of Japan. After a short overview of the history of human rights constitutionalism and commitments of Japan regarding international human rights law, we will analyze the meaning of the "cultural factor" for explaining Japan's human rights record. The nihonjiron literature will be opposed to the actions of social movements using human rights arguments to promote social and legal change. Relevance of culture and traditions will be discussed in relation to human rights litigation and the role of the judiciary body. Our analysis will close with a presentation of a specific social movement - women's groups - and how they have worked during decades to promote social and legal change, notably by referring to international human rights law.

Keywords: human rights, Japan, culture, nihonjinron, social movements, international law, universalism, cultural relativism, politics, conflict, litigation

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Sambuc Bloise, Joelle, International Human Rights Law in Japan: The Cultural Factor Revisited (November 26, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Joelle Sambuc Bloise (Contact Author)

Seinan Gakuin University ( email )

6-2-92 Nishijin
Fukuoka 814-8511

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