THE ZEIT GIST
Human rights survey stinks
Government effort riddled with bias, bad science
By Arudou Debito
Column 40 for the Japan Times Community Page
For Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Director's Cut, as submitted to the editor.
Cartoon by Arudou Debito, commissioned but unpublished by The Japan Times
On August 25, 2007, the Japanese government released findings from a
Cabinet poll conducted every four years. Entitled "Public Survey
on the Defense of Human Rights" ("jinken yougo ni kansuru yoron
chousa", from www8.cao.go.jp/survey/h19/h19-jinken
), it sparked media attention with some apparently good news.
When respondents were asked, "Should foreigners have the same human
rights protections as Japanese?", 59.3% said yes. This is a
rebound from the steady decline from 1995 (68.3%), 1999 (65.5%), and
Back then, the Justice Ministry's Human Rights Bureau publicly blamed
the decline on "a sudden rise in foreign crime". So I guess the
news is foreigners now have a higher regard as humans. Phew.
No thanks to the government, mind you. Past columns have already
covered the figment of the foreign crime wave, and how the police
stoked public fear of it. If anything, this poll charted the
social damage wrought by anti-foreigner policy campaigns.
But that's all the poll is good for. If the media had bothered to
examine its methodology, they'd feel stupid for ever taking it
seriously. Its questions are skewed and grounded in bad science.
First, why is the government even asking whether non-Japanese deserve
equal rights? Are human rights optional, a matter of opinion
polls? And if a majority says foreigners deserve fewer rights,
does that justify the current policy of no laws against racial
Not according to the United Nations. In 1998, the Committee of Civil and Political Rights slammed this census: "The
Committee stresses that protection of human rights and human rights
standards are not determined by popularity polls. It is concerned
by the repeated use of popularity statistics to justify attitudes of
[Japan] that may violate its obligations under the Covenant."
(CCPR/C/79/Add.102 Item C (7))
Undaunted, the Cabinet just keeps on polling, as they have an agenda to fill and a tax coffer to empty.
Now let's turn to the lousy science. 3000 people (1776
respondents) aged 20 and up were interviewed, "to poll the awareness of
citizens ('kokumin') regarding human rights protections, applying them
towards shaping future policy" (Survey, page one).
Well then, the sampling is already biased. If you only survey
"kokumin", you aren't surveying foreigners. As taxpaying
residents, shouldn't two million non-Japanese also have input into
policy affecting them as profoundly as anti-discrimination measures?
The survey's 21 questions asked (in summary): 1)
awareness of constitutional protections of human rights, 2) awareness
of human rights violations in Japan, 3) what kinds of people had
experienced them, 4) whether the respondents themselves had experienced
them, and 5) what they think should be done about them.
Fine. But now examine the questions and enter the Twilight Zone.
For example, in Q3 part 2, people who felt they had experienced
discrimination were to choose from a conveniently-provided list of bad
eggs: "false rumors,
bad-mouthing by neighbors", "insults or defamation", "bad treatment
from police", "violence, extortion", "false accusations of crime",
"foul odors, noise pollution", "discriminatory treatment by race,
creed, gender, and social status", "being excluded by your neighbors",
"bad treatment at work", "your domestic utilities, such as gas or
water, getting switched off", "bad treatment at public welfare
facilities", "invasion of privacy", "sexual harassment", "stalking",
"something else", and finally, "not sure, but something" (nantonaku).
Uh, even with these questions leading the witness, many categories are
not mutually exclusive ("gender discrimination" and "sexual
harassment"? "rumors" and "defamation"?). Some are too vague
("nantonaku"?). And some are from outer space ("gas and
Some are not even clear examples of "human rights"--I would even call
them "crybaby" categories: "People speaking ill of me" and
"rumors" are scientifically difficult to quantify, if not dismissible
as perceived slights by the paranoid. They invite people to say,
"Hey, develop a thicker skin!"
In fact, they don't even qualify under the UN Convention on Racial
Discrimination--as it doesn't cover interactions between individuals.
And how about "foul odors"? Under this rubric, one could argue a
stinky public toilet or a humid fart in an elevator is a violation of
No wonder people have trouble taking human-rights activists seriously,
when concepts even utilized by the government are so ill-defined.
But the survey's biggest blind spot is its approach towards issues of nationality and race.
Note how the abovementioned Q3 includes in one category,
"discrimination by race, creed, gender, and social status."
That's painting the issue with an awfully big brush. Not to
diminish the severity of these problems, but you can hardly lump them
together and get meaningful results.
Consequently, 13.9% indicated they had experienced this kind of
discrimination (probably mostly by gender). But what are the
chances of Japanese claiming they are victims of racism? If you
exclude all foreigners from the survey, you guarantee an
unrealistically low number. Especially given the spread of
"Japanese Only" signs and policies nationwide, and the longstanding
practice of refusing apartments to foreign renters.
Even then, this is small beer compared to how the remaining questions are phrased against foreigners.
For example, Q5 asked, "Which of the following human rights issues are you concerned about?"
Discrimination against "foreigners" came in 14th at 12.5%, behind
"handicapped", "elderly", "children", "Internet abuse victims", "North
Korean kidnap victims", "women", "crime victims", "HIV sufferers",
"leprosy victims", "homeless", "Burakumin", "ex-convicts", and "human
Worthy causes in themselves, of course. But foreigners enjoying
such low regard is unsurprising. The next series of questions
deliberately diminish their stature in society and their right to equal
Q6 through Q19 asked for comment about "human rights problems".
Each question covered specific sectors of society, with conveniently
leading options to choose from:
Women (choices of "human rights violations" included porno and
scantily-clad women in advertising), children (including adults being
overopinionated about their children's activities), elderly (including
lack of respect for their opinions), handicapped (including being
stared at), Burakumin, HIV patients, crime victims, Internet victims,
homeless, homosexuals, and Ainu.
Nice for the government to acknowledge (even overdo) several examples
of discrimination. But in its two questions about
discrimination against foreigners, no conveniently leading options are
Instead, Q12 says, "It is said [sic] that foreigners living in Japan face discrimination in their daily lives".
Then asks if they deserve the same rights as Japanese.
Er... is there doubt about the existence of discrimination against
foreigners in Japan? Even our courts have officially acknowledged
it in several lawsuits--the Ana Bortz and the Otaru Onsens cases being
but two famous examples.
And no similar question of doubt or qualification is raised towards any other group.
Q13 even kindly proffers possible justifications for foreigners'
"disadvantageous treatment". Out of six choices, half say
"nothing can be done" to improve things because a) "foreigners have trouble getting used to Japanese situations", b) "differences in customs, culture, and economic standing"
(which got the most votes, 33.7%). And--better sit down for this one--the tautological c) "because they are foreigners, they get disadvantageous treatment".
When a human rights survey from even the highest levels of government
allows for the possibility of human rights being optional (or worse
yet, justifiably deniable based on nationality), we have a deep and
Nowhere in the survey is the possibility that people who look foreign
might actually be Japanese. Discrimination by race gets rendered
as a subset under a larger umbrella? Discrimination by
nationality is uniquely undeserving of its own leading questions?
Stunning just how clueless even our government is about the
promotion--even the portrayal--of human rights in Japan. This
survey is most enlightening when viewed from that angle.
For it is worse than meaningless. It is unprofessional. And
discriminatory. Yet no matter how much criticism it draws from
the United Nations, our dauntless Cabinet continues to survey as if
non-Japanese residents don't count.
More information and full inclusion of original Japanese at http://www.debito.org/?p=556