Photo/Illutration Damilola Olawuyi of Nigeria, right, and Pichamon Yeophantong of Thailand speak at an Aug. 4 news conference in Tokyo. (Masaaki Kobayashi)

The U.N. Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights conducted its first-ever survey in Japan this summer.

While attention was drawn to how the group would deal with the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the late Johnny Kitagawa, it referred to diverse human rights concerns related to Japanese companies. Japanese businesses should directly face up to these issues and step up efforts to tackle them.

The working group interviewed officials of central and local governments, representatives of companies and labor unions, citizen group activists and other people during its visit to Japan. It issued an end of mission statement about its survey here.

The group identified women, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, indigenous people, buraku outcast communities and labor unions as groups that are potentially at risk of suffering human rights violations.

With regard to women, the group noted “with concern” Japan’s “persistent gender wage gap.”

Regarding sexual minorities, the group acknowledged the enactment of a bill to promote understanding of the LGBT community as an encouraging development but noted that it had been informed “on multiple occasions” of instances of discrimination against LGBT people during its research.

In specific cases, the group also learned about the circumstances of foreign workers under the nation’s technical intern training program and subcontractors involved in decontamination and decommissioning work following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, expressing concerns about their working environment.

The United Nations published its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 12 years ago, but the Japanese government compiled a national action plan to ensure compliance with the principles only three years ago.

The Guidelines on Respecting Human Rights in Responsible Supply Chains,  released by the government in 2022, call on all companies operating in Japan to identify, evaluate and address risks of human rights violations, including those in their supply chains, through human rights due diligence.

When we think about corporate human rights violations, forced labor and child labor in developing countries first come to mind. The guidelines cite them as particularly serious issues and it is imperative to take action to deal with these problems.

However, as the statement points out, there are many areas of domestic corporate activities that should be scrutinized from the viewpoint of human rights protection, including issues surrounding Johnny & Associates Inc., the scandal-tainted talent agency.

Top corporate executives should re-examine whether there are human rights issues or potential concerns within their own companies and domestic suppliers and other business partners.

The statement also pointed to a general lack of awareness of the general principles and the action plan, particularly outside of Tokyo, and discrepancies in awareness existing between large businesses and small and midsize firms.

No region, urban or rural, or companies, irrespective of their size, should be allowed to delay or refrain from efforts to protect human rights. It must be rapidly ensured that this recognition will be widely shared within the entire business world.

Furthermore, the statement called for the establishment of an independent national human rights institution, urging the Japanese government to play a more active role in promoting the cause.

Needless to say, the role of the government, which bears the obligation to protect human rights, is just as important as the responsibility of corporations.

The final report from the working group is expected to be released next June. Necessary initiatives should start immediately without waiting for the report and need to proceed promptly.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 18