The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights concluded today its twelve-day visit to Japan. We thank the Government of Japan for the invitation to conduct this country visit and its excellent cooperation in country and from its Permanent Mission in Geneva. We are especially grateful for the open and constructive discussions that we have had with officials of the Government, business community, civil society, industry associations, trade unions, workers, academia, lawyers, and other stakeholders who met with us to discuss the progress, opportunities and challenges with the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in Japan.
During the visit, we met with the Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan on Human Rights, and the Ambassador for Human Rights and International Peace and Stability. We also met with representatives of the following Government ministries, agencies and State bodies: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA); Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI); Ministry of Justice; IDE-JETRO; Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW); Cabinet Office; Consumer Affairs Agency; the National Contact Point (NCP); Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Financial Services Agency; Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA); Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC); Ministry of Finance; and Ministry of Environment (MoE). We met with local governments, including Osaka Prefectural Government and the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the City of Sapporo. In addition, the Working Group held meetings with members of the National Diet (Parliament).
During our meetings in Tokyo, Osaka, Aichi, Hokkaido, and Fukushima, we met with the following businesses and private sector associations: Ajinomoto; Akao Nenshi K.K; Asahi Group Holdings Ltd.; Fast Retailing/ Uniqlo; Fuji Oil Group; Fujitsu; Global Compact Network Japan; Johnny & Associates; Keidanren (Japanese Business Federation); Kirin Group; McDonald's; Mitsubishi Corporation; Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group; National Conference of Association of Small Business Entrepreneurs; Rakuten; Sony Corporation; Suntory; Takase Kanagata Molding Systems; Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO); and the Consumer Goods Forum. We also met with representatives of civil society, including human rights defenders, journalists, academics, workers, and trade unions. The Working Group also met with international organizations operating in Japan, such as the International Labour Organization.
In this final phase of the visit, we are pleased to share our preliminary observations. The Working Group will submit a full report on its visit to Japan to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2024.
Japan became the second country in the Asia-Pacific region to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) on Business and Human Rights in 2020 and released Guidelines on Respecting Human Rights in Responsible Supply Chains in 2022. Against this backdrop, the Working Group's visit provided an opportunity for the Government to show its ongoing efforts and leadership in promoting responsible business conduct at national, regional, and global levels.
Corporate responsibility to respect human rights
Throughout our consultations, the Working Group heard candid reflections from the business community about the progress and challenges vis-à-vis the implementation of the UNGPs. Business stakeholders reported positive practice developments, such as initiatives to provide employees with continuous human rights education and the development of operational-level grievance mechanisms, including reporting hotlines. At the same time, they admitted that considerable gaps remain in relation to a variety of issues, including the treatment of migrant workers and technical interns, the karoshi culture of overwork, and their ability to monitor and reduce human rights risks in the upstream and downstream of their value chains.
In this context, the Working Group observed three fundamental issues. First, there are significant gaps in understanding and in the implementation of the UNGPs among different types of businesses. Discrepancies in awareness exist between large businesses, especially transnational corporations that have a fairly advanced comprehension of what is required of businesses under the UNGPs, including regarding HRDD processes, and the country's SMEs, which constitute 99.7% of the total number of companies in Japan. Indeed, the low level of awareness of the UNGPs among SMEs, including family-owned businesses, led many stakeholders to underscore the need for the Government to provide tailored guidance and capacity-building to SMEs. Noting the general need for a stronger civil society, as articulated by stakeholders including businesses, the Working Group welcomed efforts made by the City of Sapporo and LGBTQI+ civil society to engage local SMEs in raising awareness about the importance of SMEs in promoting an inclusive society, including through the Sapporo Rainbow Pride event.
Further, private sector representatives spotlighted how more efforts were required to encourage the uptake of the UNGPs by other types of businesses, such as retailers and trading companies, due to the central role they play in providing information to businesses and securing procurement. These players can use their leverage to encourage national brands and suppliers along their value chains to apply the UNGPs.
Second, different stakeholders from the business community communicated to the Working Group the need for the Government to be more active in discharging its duties under Pillar 1 of the UNGPs. There was a general sentiment that the Government has been making promising progress in the business and human rights area, with METI, MOFA, and MHLW, among others, playing key roles in this regard. Even so, the Working Group observed how some of the large Japanese businesses are ahead of the Government's UNGPs-related guidelines, with their human rights policies and grievance mechanisms pre-dating the release of the NAP. The Government should engage more with these businesses to build a common understanding of positive practices and the challenges that remain.
Additionally, a clear demand was articulated by business representatives for more practical guidance from the Government on exigent issues, ranging from how to conduct heightened HRDD and responsible exit through to the regulation of value chains. Most businesses that the Working Group met with indicated the desirability of mandatory HRDD, which can assist with "levelling the playing field" among businesses and allow for greater alignment among the Government's policies and standards. In the absence of more robust HRDD requirements, the business community suggested that SMEs will have little incentive to adopt the UNGPs. It was also suggested that for the financial sector, there is a need for a legal basis to advance HRDD practices and, as such, the Government needs to take action.
Finally, the need for timely, tailored and needs-driven capacity-building was a central message conveyed to the Working Group by members of the business community. As indicated above, they acknowledged the importance of Government involvement in this area alongside the pivotal roles played by larger businesses and civil society in contributing to UNGPs-related awareness-raising and training in their business relationships. Some stakeholders noted, for example, the growing demand for auditor training on human rights as well as guidance on how SMEs can conduct stakeholder engagement better. In this sense, the Working Group highlights its report on capacity-building.
Advancing the implementation of UNGPs in Japan is critical not only for consolidating the country's reputation as a leader in the business and human rights agenda regionally and globally, but also to enhancing the positive human rights impacts and competitiveness of Japanese businesses at home and overseas. The Working Group commends the ongoing efforts of the Government, businesses, and civil society to build capacity and awareness on the UNGPs and the NAP.
Even so, the Working Group remains concerned that systemic human rights challenges in Japan are not being sufficiently tackled as part of State and private sector initiatives in the business and human rights space. There is an urgent need to fully dismantle structures of inequality and discrimination against at-risk groups, such as women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, Buraku communities, technical interns, migrant workers, and the LGBTQI+ persons. Problematic social norms and gender stereotypes that perpetuate power harassment should be fully addressed. The Government should ensure transparent investigations and effective remedies for victims of business-related human rights abuses in all industries. We call for the establishment of an independent NHRI in Japan to better promote access to effective remedy and corporate accountability.
There is a clear need to further the business and human rights agenda in Japan and, specifically, for implementation of the UNGPs to be fully realised. The Working Group thanks the Government of Japan, once again, for the invitation to carry out this visit and the willingness of all stakeholders, including the local governments of Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo, to share their insights during our consultations. The Working Group will continue to collect information over the coming months, as we develop our full report to be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2024. That report will contain concrete recommendations for the Government and businesses, as well as other stakeholders, to support efforts to enhance protection and respect of human rights in the context of business activities in Japan.
For further information, please contact: Sustainable Human Development Section, Special Procedures Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, e-mail: email@example.com; www.ohchr.org.
* This is an excerpt of the End of Mission Statement of the Working Group read in Tokyo on 4 August 2023. This excerpt focuses on corporate responsibility to respect human rights. The full statement is available at www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/development/wg/statement/20230804-eom-japan-wg-development-en.pdf.