The Rights of Foreigners to Political Protest in Japan

Top photo by Uzaigaijin. Actually as Gaijin I think there are many times we have to be uzai, both for ourselves and for Japan. This article kind of touches on this.

These are troubled times.

And with troubled times we often want to raise our voice up against what we find unjust. But what happens when we want to do so outside our home country? To what extent are our rights protected? Can we be ejected from the country we live in for protesting?

There is a lot of false information and rumors going around on the internet of possible deportation for those participating in political protests. Or scholarships getting cut etc. Like many rumors on the internet the truth is often murkier than they suggest.

There is some irony for me, as a Singaporean, to write this given that in Singapore both citizens’ but especially foreigner’s rights to protest are heavily curbed. I do not approve of the Singapore’s government’s de facto exclusions of foreigners from permitted protests.

My point through writing this article I hope to shed some light on what the law says about this and inform anyone reading this about how the rules work in Japan. There is a particular case in Japanese law, McLean v Minister of Justice, 1978 which is seen to clarify what the legal framework vis-a-vis the political rights of foreign residents in Japan are.

The Case

McLean was an English teacher who first came to Japan in 1969. At the point of arriving in Japan, he was rewarded a 1 year visa to teach English in Japan. In 1970, when he applied for an extension of his visa, his extension application was declined by the Ministry of Justice for two reasons.

Firstly, that he switched his employer (he still taught English) without informing the authorities.

Secondly, that he participated in political activities. The political activities he engaged in as detailed in the judgement include the following.

  • Participating in anti-Vietnam war groups such as the Gaikokujin Beheiren (splintered from the Beheiren)
  • Distributing flyers in support of anti-Vienam war activities
  • Participating in protests, including in front of the American embassy, American military bases, the Yokohama Immigration Center etc.

The judgement also notes that the gatherings and group protests which (McLean) participated in were within legal and peaceful boundaries. McLean himself did not take a leading or enthusiastic role in these activities.

Even though the District Court found that the Ministry’s not extending McLean’s residence period was illegal and annulled the decision, the Higher and the Supreme courts found the decision to not be illegal. Thus, the original decision for the Minister of Justice to not extend McLean’s residence period was valid and he left the country in 1978, 9 years after first touching down in Japan and after exhausting all appeals.

This case in particular calls into question a few points – as a foreigner do you have the right to free speech and political activity in Japan? Also, can your residency be declined for participating in political activity.

Translation of the reasoning

William Wetherall has the original ruling in both Japanese as well as the official English translation. If you want the short version of what the document says, do take a look at the Summary of Findings in the link above – which I do think (with Wetherall’s additions) do a good job of illuminating what the gist of the judgement is.

If however, you want to go beyond the summary and want to take a look at the whole argument and the official translation … well it basically is full of legalese. While I am not a legalese-to-English translator, I do however do Japanese to English translation. In addition, as a Japanese domestic politics graduate, I think I am reasonably well versed with how the Japanese law works.

Therefore please take the following not as legal advice, but accessible information for you to understand the limits how much the law protects you. Do note that all English translations of court rulings do not have legal power in Japan – not mine nor the official one provided by the Supreme Court.

There is a summary at the end of this document for those of you who find it a bit too long to go through the whole case judgement. That being said there is a lot of nuance in this document so it might be better for you to read carefully.

My translation of the reasoning of the court case below

* Japanese text follows the English translation. Paragraph breaks are added for easier reading. Italics are disambiguating comments made by me.

(1) Article 22, para. 1 of the Constitution guarantees the freedom to reside and move within Japan. It however is not concerned with the entry of foreign nationals into Japan. According to International Customary Law, countries are not obligated to accept the entry of foreign nationals. Unless there are separate treaties, countries are deemed to have the freedom to decide whether to accept the entry of foreigners and the conditions under which to do so. This court holds the same opinion (see Supreme Court case 1954 (A) Case No. 3594, Judgment of the Grand Bench, Supreme Court June 19, 1957 (Keishu 11-6-1663)).

Therefore, the court’s understanding is that foreign nationals are, under the Constitution of Japan, are not guaranteed the freedom to enter Japan, neither does it guarantee the right for foreign nationals to apply to reside in Japan nor extend residency. Therefore, with the above context of the Constitution in mind, decisions under the Immigration Control Act (back then this was called the 出入国管理令) allow foreign nationals to enter Japan for limited periods of time (except as stated in Article 4, para. 1, subparas 1, 2, and 14). When these periods expire, such foreign nationals must leave Japan. The Immigration Control Act (Article 21, paras. 1 and 2) allows for foreigners to request that their periods of residence be extended if they wish to reside in Japan for longer. However, the approval of these requests is subject to the Minister of Justice deciding that “there is sufficient reason for the period of residence to be extended” (para. 3 of same law). The Immigration Control Act therefore clearly does not guarantee that foreign residents in Japan have a right to have their periods of residence extended.

(一) 憲法22条1項は、日本国内における居住・移転の自由を保障する旨を規定するにとどまり、外国人がわが国に入国することについてはなんら規定していないものであり、このことは、国際慣習法上、国家は外国人を受け入れる義務を負うものではなく、特別の条約がない限り、外国人を自国内に受け入れるかどうか、また、これを受け入れる場合にいかなる条件を付するかを、当該国家が自由に決定することができるものとされていることと、その考えを同じくするものと解される(最高裁昭和29年(あ)第3594号同32年6月19日大法廷判決・刑集11巻6号1663頁参照)。したがつて、憲法上、外国人は、わが国に入国する自由を保障されているものでないことはもちろん、所論のように在留の権利ないし引き続き在留することを要求しうる権利を保障されているものでもないと解すべきである。そして、上述の憲法の趣旨を前提として、法律としての効力を有する出入国管理令は、外国人に対し、一定の期間を限り(4条1項1号、2号、14号の場合を除く。)特定の資格によりわが国への上陸を許すこととしているものであるから、上陸を許された外国人は、その在留期間が経過した場合には当然わが国から退去しなければならない。もつとも、出入国管理令は、当該外国人が在留期間の延長を希望するときには在留期間の更新を申請することができることとしているが(21条1項、2項)、その申請に対しては法務大臣が「在留期間の更新を適当と認めるに足りる相当の理由があるときに限り」これを許可することができるものと定めている(同条3項)のであるから、出入国管理令上も在留外国人の在留期間の更新が権利として保障されているものでないことは、明らかである。

As stated above, approvals for entry for foreign nationals are in principle only allowed for a limited period of time and that renewal of residence periods is subject to the Minister of Justice being satisfied that there are sufficient reasons for extending the period of residence. Therefore, the law directs the Minister of Justice to examine whether the residence of each foreign national is necessary and appropriate for each period of residence. The Immigration Control Act does not however set particular standards or conditions for the approval of extensions of residence periods. This court therefore understands that the Minister of Justice is delegated wide powers of discretion to decide whether an application for a residency extension is valid. In other words, the Minister of Justice is mandated to, when deciding whether to approve an application for renewing residency, consider protecting the national interest, which is the objective of controlling the entry of foreign nationals into Japan and the regulations on their residency. This includes considering internal security, the protection of good social norms, the health and hygiene of the country and the stability of the labor market. In addition, the Minister of Justice has to, in addition to the content of the residency extension application, consider all actions of the applying foreign national during the period of residence, the internal political, economic and social situation of Japan, international society, the foreign relations of Japan and international customs in doing so. The Minister of Justice must therefore make judgements based on this information appropriate to the specific time (of the application) and this court opines that as the most appropriate results of applications cannot be obtained without them being under the discretion of the Minister of Justice, who bears the responsibility for the administration of immigration.

From the above, this court concludes that it is evident that the discretionary powers that the Minister of Justice holds regarding whether to admit whether “there is sufficient reason for the period of residence to be extended” (as per Article 21, para 3 of the Immigration Control Act) is wide-ranging. Therefore, even if an applicant does not (have a history or other reasons which) fall foul of rules which would cause a refusal of entry into Japan or deportation, it does not mean that the Minister of Justice cannot decline their application for an extension of their residency.


(2) In addition, even if an executive body (eg. a ministry) implements supplementary rules which govern how the relevant body shall apply their discretionary powers, these rules are meant to ensure the appropriateness of decisions. Even if a decision by the executive offends these supplementary rules, these decisions’ appropriateness can be called to question but not deemed illegal. For a decision to be illegal, the decision must supersede the boundaries of the legal discretionary powers accorded to the executive or involve the gross misuse of such power. In such cases, the court may reverse this executive decision, as explained by Article 30 of the Law on Administrative Litigation.

In any case, the reasons, objectives and boundaries accorded by the law to the executive differ by the type of decision in question, and therefore the standards for which an executive decision can be deemed as illegal due to an overstep of authority or an abuse of it depends on the type of decision. In the case of the Minister of Justice deciding whether “there is sufficient reason for the period of residence to be extended” (as in Article 21, para 3 of the Immigration Control Act), due to the nature of the decision making (referring to the circumstances that need to be considered), a decision can only be considered as being illegal due to an overstep or abuse of authority only if the decision is entirely baseless in reality or heavily infringes on what would be appropriate in society’s view.

Therefore, when courts examine and rule on the legality of aforementioned decision (ie. whether to extend a period of residency), courts have to view the decision first and foremost as an exercise of the discretionary powers afforded to the Minister of Justice. Then, courts have to review whether the facts used in the reasoning were false and therefore the decision was taken was not based in reality or that the decision clearly offends what society considers to be reasonable due to the reasoning taken being clearly irrational etc. The opinion of this court is that only when either or both of these conditions is proven can courts rule the decision as being illegal due to an overstep or abuse of discretionary powers. In addition, the conditions of this particular case differ from those in the judgement of the limited bench of this court (the Supreme Court) in Case 1962 (O) No. 752, July 11, 1969 (Minshu 23-8-1470) (referenced in this supporting documents in this judgement) and do not apply to this current case. Other preceding judgements do not contradict the judgement of this course in this case.

(二) ところで、行政庁がその裁量に任された事項について裁量権行使の準則を定めることがあつても、このような準則は、本来、行政庁の処分の妥当性を確保するためのものなのであるから、処分が右準則に違背して行われたとしても、原則として当不当の問題を生ずるにとどまり、当然に違法となるものではない。処分が違法となるのは、それが法の認める裁量権の範囲をこえ又はその濫用があつた場合に限られるのであり、また、その場合に限り裁判所は当該処分を取り消すことができるものであつて、行政事件訴訟法30条の規定はこの理を明らかにしたものにほかならない。もつとも、法が処分を行政庁の裁量に任せる趣旨、目的、範囲は各種の処分によつて一様ではなく、これに応じて裁量権の範囲をこえ又はその濫用があつたものとして違法とされる場合もそれぞれ異なるものであり、各種の処分ごとにこれを検討しなければならないが、これを出入国管理令21条3項に基づく法務大臣の「在留期間の更新を適当と認めるに足りる相当の理由」があるかどうかの判断の場合についてみれば、右判断に関する前述の法務大臣の裁量権の性質にかんがみ、その判断が全く事実の基礎を欠き又は社会通念上著しく妥当性を欠くことが明らかである場合に限り、裁量権の範囲をこえ又はその濫用があつたものとして違法となるものというべきである。したがつて、裁判所は、法務大臣の右判断についてそれが違法となるかどうかを審理、判断するにあたつては、右判断が法務大臣の裁量権の行使としてされたものであることを前提として、その判断の基礎とされた重要な事実に誤認があること等により右判断が全く事実の基礎を欠くかどうか、又は事実に対する評価が明白に合理性を欠くこと等により右判断が社会通念に照らし著しく妥当性を欠くことが明らかであるかどうかについて審理し、それが認められる場合に限り、右判断が裁量権の範囲をこえ又はその濫用があつたものとして違法であるとすることができるものと解するのが、相当である。なお、所論引用の当裁判所昭和37年(オ)第752号同44年7月11日第2小法廷判決(民集23巻8号1470頁)は、事案を異にし本件に適切なものではなく、その余の判例は、右判示するところとその趣旨を異にするものではない。

(3) We consider whether the decision made by the appellee (the Minister of Justice) was appropriate based on the aforementioned principles

(三) 以上の見地に立つて被上告人の本件処分の適否について検討する。

As stated in the preceding facts of case (not included in this translation), on reviewing the application for the appellant’s (McLean) extension to the period of residency, the appellee decided that the appellant did not have sufficient reason to have his residency extended due to switching jobs without informing the authorities as well as political activities, both of which happened during his period of residency. In addition, while reviewing the judgement of the lower court, this court views the political activities as having more weight in determining the declining of the appellant’s application.


This court opines that the protection of basic human rights accorded Article 3 of the Constitution apply to foreign nationals residing within Japan, except for rights which are understood to only be accorded to Japanese citizens (important – I will comment later). Regarding the right to political activities, except for activities which affect our country’s political decision making or which the execution of it and which are deemed to be inappropriate for foreigners to partake in, the right to political activities also applies to foreign residents.

However, as mentioned above, decisions on whether a foreigner is allowed residence in Japan are delegated to the discretionary powers of the state. The Constitution does not guarantee the right for foreign residents to reside within the country nor for the right to request an extension of a period of residency. The ability of the Minister of Justice to approve an extension of the residency period on deciding that an applicant has sufficient reason to have his/her residency extended derives merely from the Immigration Control Act.

Therefore, the court finds it appropriate that the protections that the constitution affords to foreigners residing in the country are subsequent to the immigration policies stated above. Therefore, this court opines that constitutional protections for actions by foreign residents during their period of residence do not limit the discretionary power of the government to decide a foreign national’s residency and therefore do not protect a foreign national from having such constitutionally protected actions being taken as aggravating factors when a foreign national applies for an extension to their residency. Even if a foreign resident’s actions are constitutionally protected and lawful, this does not prevent the Minister of Justice from evaluating such actions as being against Japan’s interests nor from the Minister judging the relevant foreign national to possibly engage in actions detrimental Japan’s interests in the future based on these actions.


Based on their characteristics, the political activities which the aforementioned appellant engaged in during his period of residence cannot be deemed immediately as political activities not protected by the Constitution of Japan. However,  the appellant’s activities included actions to criticize Japan’s immigration policies and basic foreign policy through demonstrations against the policies taken by the United States of America with regards to the Far East, extending to the cooperation between the State of Japan and the United States of America and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan. Within these include actions that have a risk of affecting the friendly relations between Japan and the United States of America. Even if the appellee, when considering the circumstances both within and outside of Japan, judged that the aforementioned actions were not in Japan’s interests or that the appellant could in the future conduct actions which would damage the State of Japan’s interests, the appellee cannot be said to have made a judgement which is lacking in rationality or which clearly offends what society considers to be reasonable. Given that there are no other factors of the case suggesting an overstep or abuse of authority, this court cannot declare the appellee’s decision (to decline an extension of residency) to be against the law. This court also states that the action of the appellee to judge the appellant as not having sufficient reason to have his/her residency extended based on his political activities is not unconstitutional.


(4) Given the above, this court finds the original judgement (of the high court) to be justified and does not conflict with the precedents given in the arguments. The original judgement is not against the law nor unconstitutional. The appeal criticizes the original judgement from an argumentative basis which differs from our reasoning above and therefore cannot be accepted.

(四) 以上述べたところと同旨に帰する原審の判断は、正当であつて、所論引用の各判例にもなんら違反するものではなく、原判決に所論の違憲、違法はない。論旨は、上述したところと異なる見解に基づいて原判決を非難するものであつて、採用することができない。

What this means legally

I am not a legal scholar so what I right below is simply my layman understanding of what I translated. Do note that my view is quite different from that espoused by Colin P.A. Jones in his Japan Times Article.

Foreigners have rights to (some) political expression in Japan

However, that being said there are political rights which are not appropriate for foreigners to have which can influence Japanese political decision making or the execution of it.

This is clearly vague but not without reason. For example, voting, creating political parties or political donations are political activities which the majority of countries would view as inappropriate for foreign residents to engage in.

Beyond these obvious examples, the exact boundaries to what these limited political rights have not been clarified to the best of my knowledge through further court cases.

Protests were not declared unprotected

The judgement of the court stated that McLean’s actions “cannot be deemed immediately as political activities not protected by the Constitution of Japan”. The legalese double negatives makes it hard to decipher but in essence, protesting especially in the peaceful way that McLean did was not deemed as breaking the law. In fact, the wording also implicates that on first glance, this expression was protected by the Constitution even for foreigners.

There may be consequences when renewing your visa

Free speech and political expression being protected means that you cannot be charged with a criminal offense for such acts, subject to the limitations above and what if you engage in violent acts etc. However, this does not stop the Ministry of Justice from using political acts as a reason in declining an extension to your residency period.

This is different from being deported. Your residence period allows you the legal right to reside within Japan in essence as long as you do not break Japanese law and as long as your visa status is valid (belonging to a school for a student visa, earning enough the subsistence threshold on work visas etc). As long as your political expression does not infringe on Japanese law you are not committing a deportable offense.

However, the Ministry has the right to, on reviewing your profile, see if these activities are in Japan’s public interest (or other reasoning) and use them as a justification in declining an extension (and while not mentioned, by logical extension an application in the first place).

Some avenues for redress

The ruling also does mention that the courts may get involved if an executive decision is (my phrasing) based off falsehoods or if the judgement made is contrary to society’s common sense. I have no idea about how high the barrier of proof is in Japan (this is where a real legal scholar / lawyer would be good) but there is therefore some avenue for redress in the most egregious of cases.

The application (or not) of the law

I do have to add a few things to the above though. Firstly, if there are checks and balances within the law, there are also things to note outside the law.

De Jure vs De facto

In other words, just because the law allows for things does not mean that it is going to be enforced.

In actual effect the vast majority of foreigners who participate in protests in Japan do not face legal issues or visa regarding their participation. Even when these protests are particularly geared towards shaming the Japanese government or criticizing Japanese government policy – like in these pictures.

The reason is because it is against the government’s own interest in most cases to do so – lest it cause international scandal or internal criticism. Do note that McLean’s case is particular because of the foreign-policy element in it in a very socially charged period of Japan’s history where even the University of Tokyo was burning.

Regarding what is happening most recently – it really wouldn’t do the Japanese government any good to decline peoples’ visa extensions due to participating for an anti-racism march would it?

Civil Law vs. Criminal / Administrative Law

Do not take the above as allowing you to do political acts in Japan without consequences. I’d dare say that most consequences from political acts will not come from the police or immigration, but the rest of society.

To be short, the Constitution protects your freedom of speech by saying that the government cannot punish it. However, this is qualified by civil law, which is based on interactions between private individuals or bodies.

So for example, say you have signed an employment contract which states that you will not engage in activities which will bring an organization into disrepute. You do something political or not political which infringes on this. The police nor immigration will not come after you, but your employer may have legal grounds to declare a breach of contract and therefore fire you. (Do note that this same principle applies in many other jurisdictions as well). This applies entirely for Japanese nationals as well, just that under a typical work visa your work visa is voided unless you get a new job within 3 months.

This is why if there is anything politically sensitive use your common sense and check with your employer / scholarship provider etc. before engaging in it. But also remember that the de jure vs de facto rules apply with private individuals too and the fact that most individuals who participate in protests (both Japanese and foreign) do not suffer consequences with what they do on the weekend unless these protests are controversial (eg. anti-Korean protests, religious cults, republicanism etc.).

Nuances and Ambiguities

I hope that this article adds a bit of understanding regarding what you can do and cannot do.

In the end there are huge ambiguities legally which will not be cleared up until a new case comes up to test the law. Do also be very aware about the civil vs. criminal law point above too. Just because the authorities are not going to come for you does not mean that your employer / scholarship provider is not going to call you in and question what you are doing.

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