Spotlight on Japan: Kazuko Ito

Kazuko Ito is the founder and secretary general of Human Rights Now, Japan’s first human rights non-governmental organisation. She recently spoke to Chambers about her motivations behind its creation, the challenges she faces in its operations, and issues in the lives of women lawyers in Japan.

I began my practice as a human rights lawyer at Gotanda Law Offices in Tokyo in 1994, and initially my practice was domestically focused. However, in 1995, I was a member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ delegation to the United Nations’ fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It was the first time I got an opportunity to explore human rights issues and women’s rights issues in the context of the world outside of Japan. At the time, there was an international campaign opposed to violence against women, and this conference was the first to highlight such violence and insist that the international community act to combat it. I attended a workshop and listened to stories from women’s activists from India, Thailand, Bangladesh,  Rwanda, and other countries, and their testimonies utterly shocked me. I had no idea, for example, that in Rwanda, internal conflicts led to soldiers using rape as a weapon. Of course, before this conference, I was interested in international affairs, but when I heard about these women, who were the same age as me, I felt compelled to do something to help them. They may not have been born into a peaceful country like Japan like me, but we still occupy the same Earth. When I left the conference, I was resolved that as a lawyer I must use the tools that I have to fight human rights abuses, particularly those against the most vulnerable – the women and children of the world.

However, after the conference, I spoke to several lawyers about this, but almost nobody was interested; people told me instead to focus on my domestic practice. I did what cross-border human rights work I could, but there was no system for international work of that nature in Japan, so I couldn’t do much. As a result, I began to consider starting an NGO, and in the meantime frequently went to the workshops of other NGOs, such as Amnesty International Japan, in order to participate in global human rights issues as much as possible. Then, in 2004, I was sponsored by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to study at New York University School of Law. While I was studying there, I was able to take part in a number of international NGO activities through the UN system. When I returned to Japan, I was more determined than ever that I needed to do something, I couldn’t stop working on human rights issues. The only way to do this was to form an NGO here in Japan, and in 2006, with some like-minded friends, Human Rights Now was established.


Human Rights Now

Human Rights Now is the first human rights focused NGO formed in Japan, working on not only domestic but also international issues. As an organisation, it has three objectives:

– Tackle some of the gravest human rights violations in the world, with a focus on Asia.

– Improve international human rights law standards globally, using the UN system.

– Bridge the gap between international human rights laws and domestic human rights practice in Japan.

In order to achieve these objectives, we have three primary strategies. The first is to go on fact-finding missions: going to countries whose citizens are experiencing human rights violations, and where there is little attention from the media or the international community to compile detailed reports on the suffering of those people. The second is advocacy based on the results of our fact-finding. We hold press conferences, work with the UN, and lobby influential governments. We focus a lot of our lobbying activity on the Japanese government, as it is a major donor to other Asian countries, and has a significant amount of influence in the region, but we also lobby the US government, the EU, and other governments throughout Europe and the world. Our third strategy is empowerment. Many of the people suffering from human rights abuses, especially young people, have no idea that their rights are being violated. Even in very grave circumstances, they just think, “what bad luck I have”. Therefore, we educate the younger generation and human rights activists and defenders as to what human rights are. This sort of training is vital for improving the situations of people in many Asian countries, and we prioritise action against the most pressing violations, such as child labour, war crimes, and extra-judicial killings.


There have been many challenges getting to this point. Human Rights Now recently got UN Special Consultative status. Now we work effectively with the UN, but it took us a long time to get to this point. Another challenge is a lack of resources: we have offices in Tokyo, Osaka and New York, but we don’t have presence in Asia, where our attention is focused. We also want to hire more staff, so that we can get more first-hand information quickly, but lack of funding can make this difficult.

With regard to advocacy, it can be very difficult. It’s unfair, but even in cases of severe violations, the media is often unwilling to approach victims in the absence of any political interest or social movements, so getting sufficient attention is hard even in circumstances where extreme human rights abuses are taking place.

In addition, even if we manage to get lots of attention from the media and the public, it can be highly difficult to get effective resolutions of the UN, especially UN Security Council. Sadly, human rights can be very politicised, and it means we face an uphill struggle. However, we know that if we give up in the face of these challenges, no progress can be made, and we will continue to live in an unjust world; therefore, we will not stop trying to overcome these obstacles.

Even within Japan, we face a lot of challenges, and some international human rights standards have not been well implemented. Most notably, Japan still has the death penalty, which is supported by a lot of people. As a result, neither politicians nor judges want to do anything to change this: they don’t want to incorporate international human rights standards domestically in Japan. As a result, it can be a lonely, uphill struggle for a lawyer to try and implement such standards. Although progress has been made, it can be hard to make a difference, as Japan is highly bureaucratic, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system. For example, I’m currently representing a client who has been on death row for over 40  years. His name is Masaru Okunishi. I believe him to be innocent, and we’re challenging his conviction in the high court, which overturned his initial acquittal. We’re continuously rebutting arguments, and submitting reams of scientific evidence to the court, but the judge is reluctant to listen, because our client signed a confession after an exhausting 50 hour interrogation. Based on this, he has been deprived of freedom for over half a century. I believe that while criminal justice system may be based on laws and judgments, it is not based on justice.

Despite the challenges we face, we have also made progress. In addition to top-down activities like lobbying, we also go out and take part in grassroots action. For example, since 2007, we’ve been operating the Peace Law Academy, a school for Burmese youth in Mae Sot in Thailand, on the Burma border. It recruits students from opposition groups and ethnic minorities between the ages of 18 and 25. These people are very motivated to get active and change Burma, but they don’t have any awareness of human rights laws or principles. The school was started by the Burmese Lawyers’ Council, who work on human rights issues in the country, but who are isolated and without resources. We wanted to help them continue in their work. When we began working on human rights situation in Burma in 2007, hope for the future of Burma was bleak – even the term, talking and educating “human rights” was banned. But now, we have 78 graduated students who have become frontrunners of human rights activists in Burma during its transition into becoming a more open country. We managed to get the message through: it is impermissible that your rights should be violated, and you have the power to change this situation. We began the process of empowering the students, and now they have begun their own activities and are heavily involved in the transition. This is one of our proudest achievements.

Women in law in Japan

With regard to women’s representation in the legal profession in Japan, there have been definitive improvements. In 2004, the government increased the number of people who can register as a lawyer annually from 500 to 1500 . As a result, a lot more women are taking and passing the bar exam and there is an increase in the number of women in the profession, a change I welcome whole-heartedly. In addition, the mindset of managing partners, especially at big law firms, is changing: they are trying to create a culture which increases the number of women working on large, important cases they are handling. When I began my career, there was definitely discrimination against female lawyers. Many clients didn’t want their cases to be handled by me, not just because I was young but because I was a woman. Nowadays, women lawyers are much more recognised for the good work they do, and there has been media attention on the activities of women lawyers. Twenty years ago, I was shocked that so few people trusted female lawyers, but something has definitely changed in this regard, even if perhaps there are some older businesses who are still wary of being represented by women.

That said, I think there are still problems holding back women’s participation in the field of human rights law. I believe there are a lot of female lawyers who want to work on human rights issues, especially women’s and children’s rights. However, these kinds of cases don’t pay particularly well, and while we have a legal aid system, it isn’t well developed, so it can be difficult to get money from the government for such cases. There’s also the matter of reconciling the work/life dichotomy. It often pays better and is less difficult to work on business and corporate matters, which makes it an easier option for both new lawyers and those with families. Once your career begins to go along this trajectory, there isn’t a path back to do work related to public interest and human rights. This leads to a new problem: a lack of role models. With very few women doing human rights work, even fewer are visible as role models, and so even if there are young women out there right now who might make wonderful human rights lawyers, they might be put off going into the legal profession.

The future

If I had advice for young lawyers today, I would urge them to persevere and think of long-term goals. When I started my career, determined to be a human rights lawyer, there were no NGOs set up for this work in Japan, and it was a long time before I could establish one. As a result, it seemed nearly impossible for me to do the work I wanted to. But a lawyer’s career isn’t so short, and it’s certainly long enough for you to reach your goals, so don’t give up.

Now, my goals are to expand Human Rights Now even more. Everyone knows Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, and I want Human Rights Now to be as visible as they are. Our next immediate goal may be to establish bases in Thailand, or elsewhere in Asia, as well as the Middle East, and become a more influential NGO. We want to empower people, and work together with other NGOs and groups at the grassroots level. Human rights aren’t something possessed only by Western nations, but by everyone, and are realised by grassroots struggles. I hope that, one day, the international community will listen to the voices of the people on the ground who are having their rights violated, who are being killed in conflicts, and who are involved in these struggles against injustice. Our goal is to live in a world where no human rights violations can enjoy impunity. That is what we want, and we won’t give in until we succeed.

Human Rights Now is an international human rights NGO based in Tokyo, Japan. More information can be found at

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