By Nathaniel D. Moore


The flag of Japan adopted on August 13, 1999.


Traditionally, Japan has had a heavy hand when censoring its peoples’ freedom of speech and press. After the abolishment of the Imperial system and implementation of a democracy in 1947, these freedoms have fared much better. Since the regime change of World War II, the freedoms of speech and press have become the epitome of Japanese media. Reporters Without Boarders rated Japan as having a “satisfactory situation” when it comes to free speech and free press issues. Although Japan has a “satisfactory situation” rating, from 2012 to 2013 Japan sunk from #22 to #53 in Reporters Without Boarders’ annual freedom of press index due mainly to Fukushima coverage issues, and the government’s censorship of the nuclear meltdown. A few issues may have marred the Japanese freedoms of press and speech in the past few years but overall Japan is “considered to be one of the few countries that effectively guarantees the principals of free speech.”
Although newspapers are subject to libel, monopoly, and labor laws, there are no laws set to specifically regulate newspapers; in fact, there are several laws recognizing a newspaper’s right to free speech. These laws let the Japanese media enjoy a robust freedom of speech and press. In a historical perspective, the Japanese government has come a long way in granting free speech to its citizens. Coming from an imperial government led by an emperor up until the Shōwa period during WWII, citizens were forced to abide by imperial mandates without question. A new constitution and establishment of a democratized government was the first step in creating freedom of speech in Japan. A few current issues aside, the Japanese laws entitling media to freedoms combined with a tradition of subtle, indirect government influence on media has led to a healthy society of habitual news consumers.

Historical Background & Facts

Since the surrender of Imperial Japan in 1945 and the ratification of the new constitution in 1947, the Japanese have been functioning under a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial emperor. Japan has an executive branch with a prime minister, a Supreme Court, and national legislature. The national legislature of Japan is called “The Diet” and is the highest lawmaking body in the country. It is made up of a House of Representatives and House of Councilors. There are 480 members of the House of Representatives, of which 300 are directly elected and 180 are chosen by their party through proportional representation. In the House of Councilors there are 242 members, of whom 146 are directly elected and 96 are chosen by their party though proportional representation. The Japanese constitution specifically states in Article 21 “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression…” along with “No censorship shall not be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated”, thus affording the Japanese people constitutional protection equal like the citizens of the United States. According to the Freedom House legal research team, Japan is rated as having “free” levels on their Internet and press freedoms. In 2013, Freedom House gave Japan a 1.5 out of 7 (1 being the best) in overall freedom for its people. On the same scale it got a 1 in political rights and a 2 in civil liberties. Japan also got a 24 out of 100 (1 being the best) in overall press freedom, and 4 out of 30 in legal environment (1 being the best). Japanese citizens ostensibly have some of the best freedoms in the world.
Japan is made up of a large chain of Islands located to the east of China. Japan is known for many things both culturally and economically. Japanese culture has a rich tradition going back thousands of years. Japan has a plethora of art, architecture, and literature that are all unique to its people. Its food, religion, and festivals are all heavily influenced by Chinese culture, but are still totally unique. Modern cultural contributions to the world include anime, video games, and general electronic media. On the economic spectrum Japan is known for exporting chemicals, electronics, machinery, cars, scientific equipment, and semiconductors. As of 2014, Japan is estimated to have a population of 126,118,000, with 86% of those people living in an urban area. The ethnic majority of Japan is almost entirely Japanese with a minor group of Koreans, and Chinese. Most Japanese practice Shinto or Buddhism, with a small percentage of the population practicing Christianity. With the Japanese islands found to be first inhabited over 30,000 years ago, Japan has a lengthy and rich history. Japanese history contains a long period of warring states that finally coalesced into an empire in 1603 under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Years later Japan focused on many years of isolation governed by a weak emperor and powerful shoguns. The Japanese focused on little contact with other powers outside of China and Korea for many years which culminated in Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening of Japan” in 1853. In 1867 revolutionaries overthrew the shogun and ushered in the Meiji period and return of imperial rule. In 1895 Japan took over Taiwan and begun its imperial expansionist policies. By 1947 democratic Japan was established. Until the late 1980’s Japan saw an era of prosperity and growth in international power and influence. In the 1990’s, Japan was hit by a recession which is still affecting the country to this day. In 2011, a powerful earthquake hit Honshu and caused a tsunami that killed 15,800 people, and later in 2011 a nuclear reactor in Fukushima suffered a disastrous breakdown. The Japanese economy is currently recovering from both of these disasters. Japan is facing the global economic recession, continuing tensions with China, Russia and North Korea, and appears to be doing a good job maintaining the constitutional freedoms of speech and press of its people.

Free Speech

Tradition & Women’s Silence

In modern Japan, many women will tell you that there are five stages in a woman’s life. “Kekkon (marriage), shussan (birth), jutaku (owning a house), kyoiku (education), and rogo (old age)”. Though some in the West may still this as a misogynist system, this is a great leap forward for Japanese women. It was not until WWII and the industrialization of Japan that women finally started to gain equal rights. In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) women’s education consisted entirely of how to teach girls to become “good wives, wise mothers”. This ideal was reinforced by the Confucian ideal that demanded women to be obedient to their husbands no matter what. Most women in the Meiji era were trained to suppress their own desires and make their total being revolve around making their husband happy and honoring his ie (lineage). It was common for women to be “seen but not heard.” Even today men consider the household a woman’s domain, and many men thus do not wish to talk to their wives about family matters or their feelings, and it creates a rift between husband and wife. Tadashi Fukutake, a Japanese sociologist remarked that “Since the war nylon stockings and women have grown stronger.” Mr. Fukutake may be correct in his statement because in the postwar constitution there was a guarantee that women have equal rights of men. The allied forces helped women to gain their free speech without there being a widespread call for it. Many modern feminists agree that Japanese women were lucky in this aspect, but the constitutional guarantee also made there be no need for a widespread women’s rights movement thus causing the current women’s movement in Japan to be weaker than it could be. Even today some people complain that Japanese women are not treated equally. While that could be argued, many women are now going to four year universities, marrying later, having children later, having fewer children, and going to work. Arguably, this is one of Japan’s greatest achievements in free speech. Altering the whole society’s social paradigm to create a channel of unrestricted speech for a repressed population is a testament to Japan’s evolving pursuit of liberty.

Censoring History

Japan has had a history of altering its history textbooks to make the Japanese Empire look better during World War II. This problem extends to occupied Japan when the government started censorship to make sure that nothing in the books would offend the allied occupiers. This issue became an international scandal in 1982 when a Japanese historian Mr. Ienaga Saburo filed three lawsuits against the ministry of education to get them to publish his original textbook. In an interview with Japan Digest, Saburo criticized Japan’s historical censorship. Journalist Kathleen Masalski summarized his point by writing,
“The Ministry had ordered Ienaga to remove critical language in his history textbook, insisting that he write of the Japanese army’s “advance into” China instead of its “aggression in” China, of “uprising among the Korean people” instead of the “March First Independence Movement.” Pressure applied by China and Korea succeeded in getting the Ministry to back down and resulted in the Ministry’s adding a new authorization criterion: that textbooks must show understanding and international harmony in their treatment of modern and contemporary historical events involving neighboring Asian countries”.
This was a major issue because the way students viewed textbooks in Japan was very different than in the United States. “In Japan it is the government that influences the content of textbooks…As far as the effects on students go, the difference is not great . . . Our students believe absolutely what they read in textbooks.” The outcry from neighboring Asian countries caused the ministry to overturn their decision. The decision restored the free speech of Mr. Ienaga and all those affected by Japan during the war. The issue seems to be resolved, but there are still people lobbying to get references about many things Imperial Japan did during its expansion period and during the war.

Anime, Manga, and Depictions of Sexualized Children

There is a debate currently going on in the Japanese media sphere about child pornography issues and its relation to anime and manga (Japanese animated television and comics). An issue at the center of the debate is “that manga does not create victims and thus freedom of expression is at stake [if law censors it]”. Many Diet members feel that depictions of children in manga are pornography and that Japan is falling behind the times by not prosecuting these manga. Diet member Katsuei Hirasawa said to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper,
“Among the Group of Eight countries, only Japan and Russia have yet to ban the possession (of child pornography),” Hirasawa said. “Japan is regarded by the international community not only as a heaven of child pornography, but also as a country that is not doing anything to stop it.”
A new law under consideration could set up a board to review all manga and anime to see if it’s fit for society. The new law would make the possession of sexual images of children under 18 illegal. It would implement a fine of 1 million yen, and up to a year in prison if the person is found to have the images for the “purpose of satisfying sexual curiosity.” The law would also provide measures to punish the distribution of said pornography online. Many artists and consumers on the other side claim that this law would be unconstitutional because Japan’s constitution directly states that the government will not be involved in censoring its citizens’ free speech. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Japan Magazine Publishers Association, Japan Book Publishers Association, Japan Cartoonists Association and Japan Writers’ Association have all been major opponents of the Diet’s plan to implement this new law. Many of them claim that prosecuting child pornography is a good thing, but only for children that actually exist. According to them, the prosecution of animated images serves no one and only stifles the artists’ free speech. Many fear that this legislation could be a stepping stone for more legislation against free expression. Shinichiro Inoue, president of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co said to the Asahi Shimibun, “Given the tragedy of prewar Japan that silenced the people, we must continue to speak out, ‘What is wrong is wrong.”

Manga & Pornography

Pornography made by consenting adults is censored by the Japanese government. Japanese obscenity law is based on Article 175 of the criminal code of Japan (passed in 1907) that reads,
“A person who distributes or sells obscene writing, pictures, or other things, or publicly displays the same, shall be punished with penal servitude for not more than two years or a fine of not more than five thousand yen or a minor fine. The same shall be applied to a person who possesses the same for the purposes of selling it.”
This law has been in effect since the Meiji Era, and when the American occupiers took control of Japan, they didn’t change this part of the Penal Code. In the west, the world saw pornography as freedom of expression. In Japan, it is considered to be “injurious to public morals”, and one can still not buy a movie with uncensored content. This is why pornography made for domestic distribution in Japan has multiple types of censorship applied to it. The 1907 law is also the reason for the development of ways to get around the law like, controversial tentacle porn, black bar censorship, and pixilation. The largest problem of this law was that it was written in 1907, so it’s very broad when applying to today’s multifaceted media markets. According to Dan Kanemitsu a Japanese manga blogger, the standard for publishing manga in Japan before increased government interference and censorship was
“the industry standard was that obscuring the crown of the penis and clitoris, and instances of physical contact that constitutes sexual intercourse would absolve the depiction as being obscene. The police seemed also to reinforce this mantra, as they encouraged censorship of the kari (crown,) kuri (clitoris,) and the setsugou-bu (point of contact) and no more.”
In July 2013 the police seemed to amplify their standards for censorship when three editors of Core Magazine were arrested for publishing obscene content. They were arrested for selling 24,500 copies of the deemed “obscene” manga magazine, Comic Mega Store, because of its depictions of sex between a male and female. They were also charged with selling 36,000 copies of Nyan 2 Club, a magazine dedicated to reader submitted art. Both magazines had 18+ labels on their covers, yet were still prosecuted by the police. This has caused a widespread chilling effect on the publication of manga. Many publishers are now stepping up their self-censorship and editing, because if even one of their comics are found to be obscene it can cause the whole magazine to be shut down.

Free Press

The Birth of Japanese Print Media & Meiji Suppression

Japan saw its first newspapers called yomiuri 読売 (Literally: Read-Sell) and kawara-ban 瓦版 (Literally: Tile Block Printing) in the early 1850’s. They were commonly used to relay information about wars and disasters to people, but also contained gossip, love stories, and monster sightings. The early Tokugawa government had made reporting on current events illegal, and kawara-ban tiles were commonly seized or broken by the government. As Japan started receiving heavy pressure to open to the world the Meiji restoration happened in 1868, and with it came the rebirth of legalized print media. With these publicans came a new law that sought to hold editors accountable for their papers. The Newspaper Publishing Ordinance had “provisions that there would be no pre-publication censorship, that editors names and addresses would be carried in the papers, and that these editors would be personally responsible for their newspapers’ contents”. Newspapers quickly became a standard of Meiji Japanese life, and are partially accountable for the high literacy rate that Japan had, and still had today. By 1875 the Meiji support for the newspapers was starting to waver amongst a high amount of anti-military articles running in papers. The government quickly passed its first libel and anti-defamation law to stop government criticism. Journalists began to be imprisoned for violating “civic rights” and many papers were shut down. The Meiji government created its own newspaper to directly inform the people in 1883. The issue of press suppression in the Meiji era was not a big issue to the international community, and in the later Taisho period, papers started regaining their power until the rise of Japanese imperialism in the 1930’s.

Nippon Hoso Kyokai & The Imperial Media

During the rule of Emperor Hirohito newspapers and radio were taken control of by the government’s ministry of communication. In 1931 in an attempt to broaden government control over media, the imperial government mandated that radio broadcasters’ language had to be “neither excitable nor biased, but moderate, correct, and level in tone.” In 1934 Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), the main broadcaster of Japanese media, became a full-fledged arm of the government under the article 2 of the wireless telegraphy law and was considered a “surrogate for the government”. Freedom of speech took a turn for the worst when in 1937 “whatever little independence NHK previously possessed was totally curtailed and it became a simple propaganda arm for the state.” Stemming from the government takeover of the media outlets was continuous propaganda. A famous case was of many women including Iva Toguri d’Aquino, who were hired to broadcast in English to undermine allied morale. They become known collectively as the “Tokyo Rose,” and were commonly heard broadcasting in English, and were concerning because of their accuracy in intelligence reports of allied movements. Once Japan was occupied, the allied forces wanted to fundamentally change the way media was structured. The freedom of NHK was resolved by a memo that was paramount in restructuring the company into a democratic entity. The memo was known as the “Feisner memo” and it mapped out four main doctrines that NHK should abide by: “Freedom of broadcasting, political impartiality, service to the public, and maintenance of technical standards,” which are still being used today. The next step was the creation of the Dempa Kanri Iinkai (radio regulatory commission) to act as an American-style independent regulatory service for the Japanese media. The Japanese government fought this implementation on grounds that it was against a cabinet-style government. The commission was only established after General MacArthur sent a letter to the prime minister of Japan in 1945.

Japanese Treatment of Chinese Journalists

Japan and China are currently in a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea. President Abe of Japan was recently documented traveling to the disputed Senkaku Islands to visit a shrine. His cabinet has slowly been working towards a less pacifist Japan, and emphasizing the need for military defense against an expanding China. An emerging travesty of free press in Japan is its treatment of Chinese journalists sent abroad to cover Japanese issues. Two Chinese journalists from Phoenix-TV Hong Kong were reporting on protests in the Diaoyu (Chinese) – Senkaku (Japanese) islands. Japanese officials arrested 14 people in total including the Chinese journalists. After a short detention period, the journalists were deported back to Hong Kong, but it remains to be seen what might happen if a situation like this were to arise again. Since both nations claim the islands as their own it could be a spark an international conflict. This ongoing conflict should be monitored for journalist safety, and journalists on both sides have been warned to be cautious of the territories. The international spotlight now looks at China and pressures them to release not only Japanese, but any journalists they have detained.

Fukushima Disaster

Government censorship of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is the main leading reason that Reporters Without Boarders lowered Japan’s free speech and free press rating by more than 20 points in the last two years. Mari Takenouchi, an independent Japanese journalist, made comments against a Japanese NGO when they claimed people should continue to live in the irradiated zone. The NGO filed a criminal contempt complaint against Takenouchi, trying to ruin her reputation and gag anyone who speaks out against the issue. In 2012, journalist Minoru Tanaka had a libel suit brought against him by the head of the nuclear security system because of this coverage of events. The suit was later dropped in 2013, but it still shows the extent to how much the government will help journalist be silenced. Both foreign and domestic reports have had their access to information restricted, been banned from covering protests about the disaster, and have been blackmailed with criminal lawsuits if they publish anything within the “red zone” of Fukushima. The nuclear lobby in Japan is very and working with the government are trying to silence journalists in order to “save face” before the international community. The government has been documented giving conflicting information about the safety of food in the area, and the levels of radiation. Officials in Tokyo have stated areas outside the evacuation area are safe to live in, but independent studies have shown up to 200km outside of Fukushima are unsafe. It’s hard to tell when the government will stop lying, but with increasing levels of radiation measured leaking into the Pacific Ocean, it may only continue.


The United States and Japan share almost identical rights in free speech and free press issues, mainly due to the fact that leaders from the United States drafted the postwar Japanese constitution. Both countries have a long history of legal precedent and issues, but because of the restructuring of the Japanese government, its’ laws mainly reflect Western-American values with only slight deviation. The detainment of journalists is something that both Japan and America have done in the past and could possibly do in the future. They were arrested because they were seen as helping promote the protests against Japanese claims to the Senkaku islands. The Japanese constitution grants the right of free press and of assembly in Article 21, and personal freedom from detainment unless ordered by an official such as a judge in Article 33. In the United States, citizens are protected under the First Amendment for the right of freedom to assemble, and it gives their right to free press, while the Fourth Amendment protects the right to have a just cause in arrest. The United States and Japan in this aspect have mirrored constitutional values, and only seem to differ in the real world application of these values. In Snyder v. Phelps in the United State in 2006, protesters were found to have the right to protest at a funeral as long as their protest had value to national debate. The Senkaku protesters claims were undeniably about a national issue, and the Japanese officials still silenced them. Japanese officials also silenced journalists and protesters when they raised issues and complaints about the Fukushima disaster. A similar event in the United States is Hurricane Katrina that devastated Louisiana in 2005. Protesters and journalists across the nation covered the disaster and the government did nothing to silence them, because of their constitutional rights. In this respect it appears that the United States treats protesters and press rights better than Japan.
Free speech is also equally protected in both nations. Article 21 of the Japanese constitution directly states that there shall be freedom of speech and no government censorship. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution offers the same protections to our press without the express censorship clause. In Japan there is a debate about the censorship of pornography and its availability to the public. The Japanese have stuck to their 1907 criminal code and prosecuted anything that the court deems obscene under that law. In the United States we have two cases defining obscenity and the freedom of speech. In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court solidified their test to determine what is or is not obscene. The Court determined in Miller that obscene things were “utterly without socially redeeming value,” and lack “serious literary, artistic. political, or scientific value.” The case determined that obscene things are not protected by the constitution, but it narrowed down the definition of what an obscene thing was; something Japanese law does not have. In Miller, the Supreme Court determined that the First Amendment has a very hard time allowing censorship. It led to the famous three pronged standard for obscenity called the Miller Test. Arguments from Miller are why pornography is available uncensored to Americans. In comparison the Japanese have an ostensibly open constitutional law that allows for freedom of speech, but if the government determines one’s speech is obscene, then it can be prosecuted under the criminal code. The harsh Japanese definition of obscenity has led to art, comics, movies, and media to be heavily censored. In The United States we have free speech and our obscenity laws are pretty lax when it comes to expression, with cases that would be prosecuted in Japan not even being touched in America. A culmination of American precedent and social values would lead to less censorship than what is seen in Japan.
Thanks to the Allied occupation of Japan and the American hand in rewriting their constitution, Japan has very similar laws to the United States. Though both countries have almost identical laws, they are implemented in very different ways. Upon comparison one can see that Japan does not extend its laws to its citizens as easily as America does. Japanese citizens are more likely to face charges violating their free speech and free press rights than American citizens, and they are more likely to lose their cases. Japan may have recently lost some of its values of freedom, but it is still a bastion of democracy in the east when compared to its neighbors Russia, China, North Korea, and Viet Nam.

This post was last updated on April 30, 2014

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