In every city across Japan, dedicated individuals volunteer to represent and defend the rights of residents and citizens alike. They are called Human Rights Commissioners. Who are they? What do they do? Why do they matter?
In 1948, the Japanese government set up the Civil Rights Bureau, immediately after adopting the 1946 Constitution of Japan which included a chapter on human rights. The Bureau was tasked with upholding and safeguarding the rights of every person in Japan. As a national body under the Ministry of Justice, the Bureau covered five regions, enveloping all of Japan. In 2000s, the Ministry of Justice changed the name of the Bureau into Human Rights Bureau[i] and changed the name Civil Rights Volunteers into Human Rights Volunteers. These volunteers are "private citizens engaging in human rights counseling and dissemination of the concept of human rights based on the Human Rights Volunteers Act."[ii] In this article, I refer to these volunteers as Human Rights Commissioners.[iii]
To serve as a Human Rights Commissioner, one must be a Japanese adult. The number of commissioners a city or town can have depends on its population. Interested individuals can volunteer or be nominated by their local government. This is followed by a review of their application and curriculum vitae by the Ministry of Justice. Once approved, the local city council votes them into the position. Every term lasts three years, with possibilities of renewal based on mutual agreement. For years, because Nagareyama was a relatively small city, it did not have its own Human Rights Commissioners. The activities for Nagareyama were conducted by the Matsudo Branch of the Human Rights Bureau. However, as Nagareyama grew over the last fifteen years, it qualified to have its own branch.
Human Rights Commissioner
I am proud to be Japan's first foreign-born Human Rights Commissioner. My journey began in 2019 when Nagareyama,[iv] my city of residence, nominated me, and I went through the process I described earlier.
Why was I nominated as a Human Rights Commissioner? I believe it started with my family's search for a home.
My wife and I came to Nagareyama to start a family. We were interested in living on the then-new train line, the Tsukuba Express, and had looked at several stations along that line.
Based on the demographic data and a survey of the area around Nagareyama Otakanomori Station, my wife and I saw a town on the rise, undergoing a significant transformation. New roads, shops, schools, and infrastructure projects suggested that there was a dedicated organization (in this case, the city hall and city council) investing time and resources to ensure a prosperous future. As the city was emerging, we moved in, hoping to support its growth through neighborhood organizations or local charities.
Shortly after we moved to the city, I became the head of Talent Management of a company. This meant I was also the supervisor for the manager in charge of diversity and inclusion. This manager was tasked with driving projects that would both support diversity and promote American International Group (AIG) into communities. Considering Nagareyama's focus on fostering a diverse population, we wanted to explore collaboration opportunities.
Our experience was that Nagareyama city hall was always collaborative, open, and ready to provide advice and insight to help us promote themes of diversity to their population.
Through many of these activities, I got to know a few members of the city council, and I believe they nominated me following the retirement of one of the previous commissioners.
When the city hall called to inform me of their desire to nominate me for the position, I was initially unaware of what a Human Rights Commissioner did. However, upon learning, I realized it was an opportunity for a recently naturalized Japanese citizen like myself to give back to the country I now called home.
What do Human Rights Commissioners do?
Our primary mission is to enhance awareness about human rights. We organize events, conduct seminars on topics like bullying, abuse, and discrimination, and address concerns raised by children through the SOS Letter program. Additionally, we guide the public via phone consultations, bringing serious issues to the Ministry of Justice when necessary.
The Nagareyama Human Rights Commissioners meet monthly to discuss upcoming events and prepare the annual events calendar. Besides seminars, we also sponsor a Human Rights Essay and Art contest in collaboration with Matsudo Branch of the Human Rights Bureau. Twice a year, we organize special events featuring guest speakers, movie directors, or artists who share their work related to significant human rights issues. These events occur on Human Rights Commissioner Day[v] in June and during Human Rights Week in December.
Within the national framework, every Commissioner joins specialized committees. For instance, I am part of the Children's Commission. This means, on certain days, I answer the national children's hotline. So, if you are a parent or a child in Chiba Prefecture needing guidance on rights violations, I might be the one assisting you!
Out of 14,000 Human Rights Commissioners in Japan, most are seasoned individuals, often over 60, who bring immense dedication and commitment to the role. If you ever feel unsafe, unheard, or unimportant in Japan, remember: a group of 14,000 stands ready to support you.
Another point worth noting, which may be unfamiliar to those not involved with the Human Rights Bureau, is that many volunteers are retirees. Some young people might assume that older individuals are set in their ways or less progressive than younger generations. However, this is far from the truth. It is continually inspiring to meet individuals, some nearly twice my age, dedicating so much time to defending the human rights of people they may not even know. Their life experiences provide a wealth of knowledge and, I believe, the courage to advocate for what is right, and the passion to make a positive impact.
Therefore, I urge people in Japan to connect with the local Human Rights Commissioner. Understand your rights. It is an investment in yourself, and trust me - you won't regret it.
Henry Seals is presently the Chief Operating Officer for Zaiko, a firm which provides ticketing and e-commerce solutions for performing artists. In his free time he and his wife volunteer in their city and organize events for their community.
For further information, please contact: Henry Seals via e-mail: email@example.com.
[i] See Human Rights Bureau, Ministry of Justice, www.moj.go.jp/ENGLISH/HB/hb.html.
[iv] Nagarayama city is in Chiba prefecture in Eastern Japan.
[v] I use the June event title "Human Rights Commissioner Day" since in Japanese the term for Human Rights Commissioner is 委員 that literally translates to "committee member" of the Human Rights Bureau. When describing the annual day, which is called 人権擁護員の日, using the term "volunteer," it would be "Human Rights Volunteer Day" which might imply a day where people should volunteer for human rights. The word "volunteer" does not imply that we are actually registered members of the Ministry of Justice. Therefore we use the term Commissioner when we speak to each other and to the Ministry of Justice officials.