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The Constitution of Japan guarantees freedom of expression, but also limits it for the public welfare. There is no law that protect journalists specifically in response to internet harassment and disinformation campaigns. However, the crimes of defamation, insults, and threat under the Penal Code and torts under the Civil Code provide protection against online harassment and disinformation. The Internet Provider Liability Act facilitates removal of offensive online information, and obtaining information on the identity of the offender for later legal actions is made easier by limiting the providers’ liability.

I. Freedom of Expression and Its Limit

The Constitution of Japan guarantees freedom of assembly and association as well as freedom of speech, the press, and all other forms of expression.[1] Freedom of expression relating to public matters is regarded “as a particularly important constitutional right in a democratic nation.”[2] However, the Constitution also states that people “shall refrain from any abuse of these freedoms and rights and shall always be responsible for utilizing them for the public welfare.”[3] For example, freedom of expression is limited by the penal code, which makes defaming another person a crime.

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II. Protections From Online Harassment/Disinformation

There is no law that protects journalists specifically in response to internet harassment and disinformation campaigns. However, there are laws that protect persons in general from online harassment and disinformation.

A. Penal Code

1. Defamation and Insults

Defamation and insults are criminal offenses. A person who defames another by alleging facts in public can be punished by imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine of not more than 500,000 yen (approximately US$ 4,600), regardless of whether such facts are true or false.[4] However, if a public allegation is found to relate to matters of public interest and to have been conducted solely for the benefit of the public, and the alleged facts are proven to be true, the person is not punished.[5] Even if the alleged facts are not proven to be true, if there was a substantial basis for the person to believe the alleged facts were true, he or she is not punished.[6]   Insulting another person in public, with or without alleging facts, is punishable by detention or a petty fine.[7] Defamation and insults are prosecuted only upon a complaint by the victim.[8]

Courts have applied the law in cases of online defamation. On the Courts of Japan website, the earliest case of online defamation was decided by a district court in 2002.[9] In the late 1990s, some experts stated that defamatory expressions may be tolerated more online because people generally do not take the online expressions of ordinary users very seriously, compared with expressions on other media. They also stated that the victims can rebut the expressions online to negate the defamatory expressions.[10] In the first known acquittal, the Tokyo District Court  acquitted a defendant of online defamation in 2008.[11] The District Court found that, although the defendant’s statements were not proved as facts, he had made them in the public interest and did sufficient research for an individual internet user at the time.[12] Using reasoning similar to the experts writing in the 1990s, the District Court applied a different standard for the level of research required to avoid a finding of online defamation.[13] On appeal, however, the Tokyo High Court in 2009 and the Supreme Court in 2010 rejected applying a different standard to online defamation. The Supreme Court said not all internet users take online opinions as less credible, the damage caused by defamation can be serious because countless internet users can view the expression in a short time, and there is no mechanism that can insure recovery of the victim’s dignity.[14]

2. Threat

Intimidating another person by threatening the person’s life, body, freedom, reputation or property is punishable by imprisonment for not more than two years or a fine of not more than 300,000 yen (approximately US$2,800).[15] According to a cybercrime report by the National Police Agency, suspects have been arrested for allegedly making online threats since at least 2010.[16]      

3. Criminal Cases of “Net-Lynching”

It does not appear that there are cases where suspects were investigated for alleged internet harassment and disinformation campaigns against journalists.   

There are many so-called “net-lynchings” in which victims are threatened, harassed, or defamed and their private information revealed online.[17] A well-known instance involved a comedian whose harassers, beginning in 1999, accused him online of participating in an infamous rape and murder.[18] The police initially did not take the matter seriously and did not investigate until 2008 when the comedian met a sympathetic detective. Some of the alleged harassers were identified and referred for prosecution.[19] Prosecutors reportedly did not indict those accused because they said they regretted their actions and would apologize to the comedian. After the police investigated the case and the media reported it, however, online harassments decreased significantly.[20]      

B. Civil Code (Torts)

Under the Civil Code, a person who has intentionally or negligently infringed others’ rights or their legally protected interests is liable for any resulting damages.[21] The protected rights include reputation and privacy.[22] The victim can request the court to order the offender to take appropriate measures to restore the victim’s reputation in lieu of, or in addition to, damages.[23]

There are many cases where courts have ordered persons who spread defamatory information online to pay damages, publicize their apology to the victims, or both. For example, in 1997, the Tokyo District Court ordered a forum user on a computer network who posted comments against another user to pay damages because the aggressor defamed and insulted the other user, among other things. The Tokyo High Court confirmed that part of the judgment in 2001.[24] The first decision finding defamation on the internet was rendered by the Tokyo District Court in 1999.[25]        

C. Anti-Stalking Act

Posting matters online that harm the targeted person’s dignity is one of the patterns of “acts of haunting” under the Anti-Stalking Act.[26] If an act of haunting is repeated, the acts constitute stalking.[27] However, the Anti-Stalking Act applies only where the act was committed to satisfy a feeling of love or affection for a particular person or because of a grudge against the person caused by unfulfilled love or affection.[28] Therefore, the act usually would not apply to internet harassment and disinformation campaigns against journalists.

D. Act Related to Hate Speech

Japan has an anti-hate speech law, the Act on the Promotion of Efforts to Eliminate Unfair Discriminatory Speech and Behavior against Persons Originating from Outside Japan.[29] The act declares that unfair, discriminatory speech and behavior against people who are legally residing in Japan and who are from or whose ancestors were from outside of Japan is not tolerated.[30] As the name of the act suggests, its application is limited to speech against persons born outside Japan or of a different ethnicity. In addition, the act does not have a penal provision.

E. Internet Provider Liability Law

When offensive information against a person is posted on the internet, the person may want to eliminate the postings and seek compensation from the offender. A statute limiting the liability of internet providers facilitates the process.[31] 

The statute exempts internet providers from liability when they prevent distribution of information that infringes a person’s rights. In cases where a provider has reasonable grounds to believe that a person’s rights are infringed without due cause by distributing the information, the provider can block the information without liability to the person who sent it.[32] In addition, when a person alleging that his or her rights are infringed by information distributed by an internet provider asks the provider to stop its transmission, the provider must ask the information sender whether the sender consents to that action. Where the provider has not received any notice from the sender indicating disagreement within seven days, the provider is not liable to the sender for any damages caused by preventing distribution of the information.[33] 

Persons alleging that their rights were infringed by distribution of information via the internet may demand that the service provider disclose the identity of the sender if there is evidence that the distribution resulted in infringement and if identifying the sender is necessary to pursue a claim for damages or there is another justifiable ground for obtaining the sender’s identity.[34]

When a service provider receives such a demand, it must let the information sender know and consider the sender’s opinion, except where the provider is unable to contact the sender or under other special circumstances.[35]

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III. Discussion of Protection of Journalists from Online Harassment and Disinformation Campaigns

There have been no discussions regarding the need for development of legislation or policies to protect journalists from online harassment and disinformation campaigns.

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Sayuri Umeda
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
September 2019


[1] Constitution of Japan (1946), art. 21, para. 1, https://perma.cc/3Y8U-CL9S.

[2] 1981 (O) 609, Sup. Ct. (June 11, 1986), 40 Minshu 872 (summary in English) , https://perma.cc/6YEG-R8T3.

[3] Constitution, supra note 1, art. 12.

[4] Penal Code, Act No. 45 of 1907, amended by Act No. 72 of 2017, art. 230, para. 1 (tentative translation of the Code as amended by Act No. 49 of 2013), https://perma.cc/8XK2-VZG3.

[5] Id. art. 230-2, para. 1.

[6] 1966(a)2472, Sup. Ct. (June 25, 1969) (in Japanese), http://www.courts.go.jp/app/hanrei_jp/detail2?id=50801 (for the text of the judgment, click on the characters beside the pdf icon at the bottom of the box).

[7] Id. art. 231.

[8] Id. art. 232.

[9] 2002(wa) No. 651, Fukuoka Dist. Ct. (Nov. 12, 2002) (in Japanese), https://perma.cc/U752-23PF.

[10] 小倉 一志 (Kazushi Ogura), インターネット・「コード」・表現内容規制 (Regulations of Internet, “Code,” Expression), 208-9 (2017) (in Japanese), https://lccn.loc.gov/2017435554

[11] Comment, Hanrei Jiho 2009, at 151 (2008).

[12] 2004(wa) 5630, Tokyo Dist. Ct. (Feb. 29, 2008), Hanrei Jiho 2009, at 151 (2008).

[13] Comment, supra note 11.

[14] 2009(a)360, Sup. Ct. (Mar. 15, 2009) (in Japanese), http://www.courts.go.jp/app/hanrei_jp/detail2?id=38704 (for the text of the judgment, click on the characters beside the pdf icon at the bottom of the box).

[15] Penal Code art. 222.

[16] 広報資料 (Public Relations Material): 平成26年中のサイバー空間をめぐる脅威の情勢について (Regarding  Situation of Threats in Cyber Space During 2014), Table 6-1 (Mar. 12, 2015) (in Japanese), National Police Agency, https://perma.cc/55ZU-HSZ4.

[17] ネットのぬれぎぬリンチ深刻化 (Online “Lynching by False Accusation” Getting More Serious), Nishinippon Shimbun (Sept. 4, 2019) (in Japanese), https://perma.cc/83FV-Y92H.

[18] 信原一貴 (Kazutaka Nobuhara), 「人殺しは死ね」デマと闘った18年 スマイリーキクチ (‘Die, Murderer’ 18 Years of Fights against False Rumor, Smiley Kikuchi), Asahi Shimbun (June 15, 2017) (in Japanese), https://perma.cc/PP45-PPUP

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Civil Code, Act No. 89 of 1896, amended by Act No. 34 of 2019 (Reiwa 1), (unofficial translation as amended by Act No. 78 of 2006), https://perma.cc/X6YN-ZX89

[22] Id. art. 710.

[23] Id. art. 723.

[24] 1997(ne)2631, Tokyo High Ct. (Sept. 5, 2001), http://www.courts.go.jp/app/hanrei_jp/detail4?id=167 (for the text of the judgment, click the characters beside the pdf icon at the bottom of the box).

[25] 小倉, supra note 10, at 39.

[26] Anti-Stalking Act, Act No. 81 of 2000, amended by Act No. 102 of 2016 art. 2, para. 1, item 7.

[27] Id. art. 2, para. 3.

[28] Id. art. 2, para. 1.

[29] Act on the Promotion of Efforts to Eliminate Unfair Discriminatory Speech and Behavior Against Persons Originating from Outside Japan, Act No. 68 of 2016.

[30] Id. preamble.

[31] Act on the Limitation of Liability for Damages of Specified Telecommunications Service Providers and the Right to Demand Disclosure of Identification Information of the Senders, Act No. 137 of 2001, amended byAct No. 10 of 2013 (original Act No. 137 of 2001), https://perma.cc/LB28-4ZM7.

[32] Id. art. 3, para. 2, item 1.

[33] Id. art. 3, para. 2, item 2.

[34] Id. art. 4, para. 1.

[35] Id. art. 4, para. 2.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020