Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro stepped down in September after five years in office and was succeeded by his Cabinet Secretary, Abe Shinzo.
A nuclear test by North Korea in October intensified public debate in Japan on whether to revise Article 9 of the Constitution which defines Japan as pacifist. In July all Japanese troops were withdrawn from Iraq.
The Legal Committee of the Diet (parliament) discussed a Bill that would criminalize any discussion about committing a criminal offence. It was feared that vague and broad terms contained in the law would restrict freedom of speech.
In August, the government announced that Japan would accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in July 2007.
As a result of Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura's commitment not to sign execution orders while in office, no executions were carried out between 16 September 2005 and 25 December 2006. Following his replacement as Justice Minister by Jinen Nagase, a supporter of the death penalty, the moratorium was ended and on 25 December, four people were executed in secret by hanging - Hidaka Hiroaki in Hiroshima, Fukuoka Michio in Osaka, and Akiyama Yoshimitsu, aged 77, and Fujinami Yoshio, aged 75, in Tokyo.
At the end of 2006,94 prisoners remained on death row. Executions are typically held in secret and prisoners are either not warned of their impending execution or are notified only on the morning of the day of execution.
Refugees and immigration
The number of asylum-seekers increased to more than 900, although the number of people recognized as refugees fell to 26. Lawyers, most of them Tokyo-based, faced difficulties in gaining access to asylum-seekers at detention facilities, especially when their clients were detained in immigration facilities far from Tokyo.
Amendments were introduced to the Immigration and Refugee Recognition Law that introduced fingerprinting and photographing of all visitors to Japan. They also brought in fast-track procedures to deport anyone deemed by the Justice Minister as a "possible terrorist", which had the potential to undermine the principle of non-refoulement.
Some people with valid passports who applied for asylum on arrival in Japan were reported to have been detained indefinitely at hotels near airports of entry if they were deemed likely to abscond. They were not guaranteed the right to communicate with the outside world, or to have access to adequate medical treatment and food. In addition, they did not always have prompt access to a lawyer or advice about their rights in a language they understood. As a result, they did not have adequate recourse to a judicial process.
• More than 30 asylum-seekers, including two 16-year-old Kurdish minors, were detained for about 40 days in July-August at a hotel near Narita airport soon after they sought asylum. All were charged for their accommodation at the hotel.
Reparations for violence against women
Survivors of Japan's system of sexual slavery before and during World War II continued to be denied full reparations. Japanese courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits seeking compensation, and the government continued to argue that compensation claims were settled by post-war treaty arrangements.
• In August the Tokyo District Court refused to award damages to eight Chinese women who were victims of Japan's sexual slavery system, even though it acknowledged that the women had been kidnapped, held against their will and raped as teenagers.
Substitute prison system (daiyo-kangoku)
The daiyo-kangoku system of pre-trial detention continued to allow police to hold suspects in police cells without charge for up to 23 days, a practice that facilitates the extraction of "confessions" under duress. Under the daiyo-kangoku system, suspects are solely under the control of the police; there are no rules or regulations regarding the duration of interrogation; lawyers' access to clients during questioning is restricted; and there is no electronic recording of interviews by police.
During 2006 amendments to legislation concerning daiyo-kangoku were introduced, giving the daiyo-kangoku system legal status for the first time. The amendments provide for detainees to be informed of some of their rights and for lawyers to be appointed, but only after charges have been brought. Detainees are usually charged only after they have "confessed". AI had long campaigned for abolition of the daiyo-kangoku system rather than its reform.
AI country reports/visits
• "Will this day be my last?": The death penalty in Japan (AI Index: ASA 22/006/2006)
AI delegates visited Japan in February 2006.