Visit by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights to Japan and Its Implications for Japanese Civil Society InsightsEssays: Civil Society in Japan

Posted on September 07, 2023

Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) has a news & commentary site called NPO CROSS that discusses the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.

Visit by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights to Japan and Its Implications for Japanese Civil Society


Observations of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights released its preliminary observations from their visit to Japan at a press conference on August 4, 2023. The questions from the press were predominantly on the issue of Johnny’s Entertainment, and some reporters continued asking about the Japanese entertainment company, even when the speakers of the working group encouraged them to move on to other issues. Most of the press coverage afterwards also seemed to emphasize the fact that the UN had taken up the issue involving Johnny’s Entertainment.

The issue of Johnny’s Entertainment is a very serious case, involving the sexual exploitation and abuse of numerous children and adolescent boys along with the long-standing reluctance of the Japanese media to report on it. On the other hand, the working group has also addressed a wide range of issues, including the need to work toward eliminating discrimination against women, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, Buraku communities, technical interns, migrant workers, and LGBTQI+ people, as well as the issue of workers involved in the decommissioning of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We cannot emphasize more the need to make sure that the responses to these issues do not become inadequate.

In addition to these, the working group raised other points vis-à-vis overall efforts in Japan that we believe are important for our civil society. Fortunately, the UN working group has published a memo of the conference. In this article, we would like to introduce them and consider the ‘homework’ assigned to civil society in Japan.


Insufficient involvement in the Action Plan development processes and its inadequate penetration in society

The Working Group commends the Japanese government for being the second in Asia to develop a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP), following a multi-sectoral consultation process.

However, it adds the following damning observations.

… [W]e observed a general lack of awareness of the UNGPs [United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights] and the NAP, especially outside of Tokyo. The Government should take a leading role in conducting training and awareness-raising workshops on the UNGPs and the NAP.

There is a need to ensure that all relevant actors across all 47 prefectures, including businesses and business associations, as well as trade unions, civil society, community representatives, and human rights defenders, fully understand their human rights duties and responsibilities under the UNGPs and the NAP. Thus far, these actors seem not to have been fully engaged in the development of the NAP, with many stakeholders at the local level indicating no awareness of the NAP’s existence.

In short, the working group points out that although the Japanese government has developed an action plan on business and human rights, the stakeholders were not sufficiently involved in the formulation of the plan, and the plan has hardly reached or taken root in Japanese society in general. We suspect the fact that this plan was created in 2020, when Covid-19 was rampant, could have been one of the causes for such inadequateness, but it seems to us that the working group can be implying that the Japanese efforts on this matter is akin to a Potemkin village*1.

*1 A seemingly affluent fake village. It is said that Potemkin, a vassal of Tsarina Catherine II of Russia, had it built on the occasion of her visit to Crimea. The term is also used to refer to facilities built to deceive foreign visitors in the former Soviet Union and others.

It also seems to us that a certain responsibility for this situation lies with civil society in terms of tackling business and human rights issues. This is because civil society could, for example, address human rights issues based on the UNGPs and NAP, and promote these issues in the local community*2.

*2 The working group has highlighted as good practice the efforts of the City of Sapporo and the local LGBTQI+ community, together with local SMEs, to raise awareness of the importance of the role of SMEs in achieving an inclusive society.


What is requisite for civil society in Japan

In its observations, the Working Group expresses concern to the Japanese government over the lack of independent national human rights institutions in Japan. It also recommends that when the government reviews the NAP in the future, it should conduct a gap analysis and review the priority items appropriately together with multi-sectoral participants. They also point out that SMEs are significantly less aware of and involved in business and human rights issues than large corporations, and that the human rights due diligence by businesses continues to be a critical issue. It is incumbent on us, the civil society in Japan, to carefully monitor the future responses of the government and corporations to these recommendations and points made by the working group, and to speak up and get involved as necessary.

Japanese civil society has a good track record of taking action and influencing society on human rights issues. For example, with regard to HIV, members of civil society have worked together to ensure that there would be no discrimination based on the mode of transmission in the process of patients obtaining disability status, and the so-called AIDS Prevention Law has been repealed thanks to their efforts*3. Most recently, it is still fresh in our memory that civil society joined together to lobby the government and the Diet to prevent negative effects that could hinder legitimate donation activities in connection with the proposed new law regulating malicious donations.

*3 It is said that the solidarity amongst the groups concerned contributed to the decision on how patients got infected being disregarded, and that the actions taken to abolish the AIDS Prevention Law was stemmed from this sense of solidarity with those who had fought discrimination against people with leprosy.


In spite of these achievements, why did civil society in Japan end up having to witness the UN working group commenting that its involvement in the formulation of the NAP was not sufficient, and why has society as a whole not shown adequate awareness of UNGPs and the NAP? Were there any contributing factors other than the Covid-19 pandemic? Could one of them be that civil society was too siloed in their respective fields of expertise thus failed to have a holistic view, for example?

We think it can be said that the observation by the working group includes not only the issue of Johnny’s Entertainment, but also questions for our civil society in Japan to answer.


Summaries, translations, and interpretations of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights’ preliminary observations on its visit to Japan have been made by the authors independently and without consultation with the UN Working Group. Also, please note that we have, at our discretion, selected specific parts from the UN Working Group’s observations for our discussion, but they should be considered in their entirety for an accurate understanding of its views, and that its final report is due in June 2024.

We would like to remind the readers that the opinions expressed herein are not those of JNPOC as an organization, to which the authors belong, but rather our personal ones.


Original text by Masahiro Yokoyama and Hikaru Chiyoki (JNPOC staff) originally posted on August 23, 2023; translated by JNPOC.