As part of a new series, Sanae Fujita, a Visiting Fellow of Essex Law School, has been recounting her work on educating her native country of Japan about human rights and exposing abuses in a country that rarely falls under the microscope

International human rights are not well known in Japan, by media, lawyers or even among the human rights community.

The simple question 'what are human rights' is not fully understood by the Japanese public.

I have been working on Japanese human rights issues for about 10 years now and have received all sorts of advice from my mentors at the University of Essex and other academic staff around me.

However, if I tried to apply what I had learned at Essex directly to Japan, it would not work.

When I thought about why, I realised that human rights are not properly understood in Japan.

Strange as it may sound, in Japan people are taught, and many believe, that human rights are kindness and compassion.

Indeed, Japanese legislation on human rights education emphasises 'cultivating the spirit'.

There is a lack of discussion of the obligations of government there.

At the same time, people do not know their rights well enough.

They are not taught that they can make demands of the government.

So for most people, a strike for higher wages is not even a thought.

Emphasis on self-responsibility

On the other hand, there is a huge emphasis on self-responsibility.

So, if there is a problem, you and the people around you think you should take care of it yourself.

For example, in Japan an extremely high number of people are hesitant to even apply for welfare, even if they meet the application requirements.

The data is a bit old, but in 2010, the proportion of those in receipt of welfare who actually qualify for it was 15.3~18% in Japan, compared to 47~90% in the UK. This is partly because of the flawed system itself, but also because they are not fully aware that welfare is a right.

Risk of emphasis on compassion rather than universal human rights

Japanese society also has a strong tendency to exclude those who are different.

The refugee recognition rate remained below 1% until 2022.

In 1965, a legal bureaucrat at the immigration bureau even wrote in his book to his colleagues that they were free to 'boil or grill foreigners', which caused problems.

Even today, deaths and assaults continue to occur in immigration detention centres in Japan.

People can be compassionate towards their own people, but tend to treat people who are different in a discriminatory way.

Therefore, it is important that the concept of universal human rights, that all people have human rights, is properly taught, but I think this is insufficient in Japan.

In Japan, people are taught that human rights are about compassion, and the concept of universal human rights is not sufficiently rooted in society.

'Write a book on international human rights in Japanese for ordinary people'

I explained the situation in Japan to my mentor, Professor Paul Hunt, and consulted him frequently.

And the advice, or rather the challenge, he gave me a few years ago was: "write a book on international human rights in Japanese. Not a textbook, not an academic book, but a book for ordinary people to read and understand international human rights".

In fact, several books on international human rights had been published in Japanese, but few were aimed at the general public.

Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to publish a pocket edition paperback by one of Japan's largest publishers.

It was quite a challenge to write about a technical subject in a plain, easy-to-read text that the general public could understand, but I worked relentlessly on it throughout the pandemic.

And on 16 December 2022, just as I was in Japan, the book, International Human Rights as Arms: Poverty, Press and Discrimination in Japan, was published.

Reaction to the book

In Japan, when it comes to 'human rights', few people have a positive image.

For this major publisher, publishing a book on human rights was almost unprecedented, and I had no idea how many people in Japan would pay attention to this book.

But to our surprise, the first 6,000 copies of the first print run were sold out within two months.

Since then, the book has been reprinted and is currently in its third print run on the market.

In addition, an audiobook was produced at the request of visually impaired people.

I went to give talks around the country for a little over two months from January and saw a number of audiences who had read and bought the book, which had just been published, with lots of sticky notes on it.

One such man was wrongfully arrested and unfairly dismissed in a trade union crackdown.

"After reading this book, I realised that all the human rights violations I have suffered and all the other problems written in this book are connected. I am ashamed that I knew nothing about it. I want to make use of international human rights," he said.

My talks were also staged in small rural towns and villages.

Many young couples listened to my talks with their small children on their knees, each of them saying that they had all learned about human rights properly for the first time.

The main purpose of the book is to explain international human rights and Japanese issues from this perspective to the general public, so that more people in Japan can make use of international human rights law and UN human rights bodies.

As with previous lectures and talks, I found that such commentary makes readers aware of something new.

The impact of the book did not stop there

However, I found through my travels that the impact of the book did not stop there.

In the first chapter, I explained in a nutshell what human rights are and what the obligations of government are, and that human rights and compassion are two different things.

Such things are well known in the UK, but not well enough known in Japan for the reasons already mentioned.

Such a basic content was 'eye-opening' for many. And several people said that they had found personal healing through it.

One woman travelled more than 200 miles to come to my talk.

She had distrusted people because of a kind of power harassment and had been unable to have a proper social life for two years due to PTSD.

Japan is a society that emphasises self-responsibility and she said she kept blaming herself for not being able to cope with such relationships.

But after reading my book, she realised that this was not her own fault and that she had the right to claim and be heard.

She says she is empowered by human rights and is recovering from PTSD.

Another woman was told as a child by her parents that she should never have been born, grew up abused and had many physical and mental problems.

However, after reading my book and learning about human rights, she happily told me that she now knows that she has dignity and value.

Others said that after reading my book, "the heaviness I felt in my heart became lighter" or "I always carry it with me because I feel better when I read it. I even read it while taking a bath".

'Human rights give people hope, courage and empowerment' is something I have now heard so many times at Essex.

And I felt I had witnessed it first-hand. I didn't write a religious book or a healing book, but the book was healing people. I was overwhelmed.

On the other hand, it is also a shocking reminder that Japan is a society with such a strong sense of stagnation.