Reconsidering Rights in Japanese Law and Society

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



This book challenges the belief that the assertion of rights is fundamentally incompatible with Japanese legal, political, and social norms. In doing so, it explores evidence in a variety of sociolegal arenas: in linguistic and conceptual predecessors to the Japanese word for “rights,” kenri; in Japan's tradition of protest; in the growth during the late nineteenth century of the Movement for Freedom and Popular Rights; in the “new rights” movements of the 1960s and 1970s; and in contemporary policy disputes over AIDS and the definition of death. Analysis of each of these domains points to the same conclusion; rights in Japan have been, and continue to be, asserted and fought over, if not always secured. Many of the most erudite and influential commentators on Japan have reached very different conclusions. They argue that the persistence of premodern legal and political values in Japanese society has inhibited the articulation and emergence of rights. Political analyst Karel van Wolferen writes that “[t]raditional attitudes, reinforced by contemporary practice, obstruct the establishment of an unambiguous concept of ‘rights,’” and he dismisses the seriousness of groups that frame their arguments in the language of rights. Susan Pharr, Harvard's Reischauer Professor of Japanese Studies, claims that “most Japanese continue to view the official ideology [postwar democracy and egalitarianism], with its linkage to a notion of individual rights, as basically ‘Western,’” and goes on to argue that Japanese political culture is antithetical to an idea of rights.

Publication Title

The Ritual of Rights in Japan