Japan’s secret agenda. Guest blogger: Walter Hamilton

Using its dominance of both houses of the Diet, Japan’s ruling party has pushed through a new anti-terrorism and secrecy law. The strong-arm parliamentary methods used to secure its passage have added to public concerns about the way the law may be employed by the Abe Government to stifle dissent, curb public access to information and intimidate political opponents. The LDP mustered its numbers during a late-night session on Friday, noisy public protests and extensive media criticism notwithstanding.

The State Secrecy Protection Law is the legislative accompaniment for Japan’s newly created National Security Council (modeled on America’s NSC), both required, says the government, for effective crisis management. What crisis? Many observers believe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has moved swiftly to exploit the sense of crisis affecting Sino-Japanese relations as a result of their territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Critics of the law say it is vague and all encompassing and lacks a clearly defined process of review. The law defines “terrorism” as any activity that forces “political and other principles or opinions on the state or other people.” Concern that this could be used to control dissent took on more substance after LDP secretary-general and senior government member Shigeru Ishiba likened public demonstrations against the law to “terrorism” (he later “corrected” his statement). The law puts into the hands of bureaucrats the power to determine what is and what isn’t a state secret. While this is not unusual by international standards, the political culture in Japan is already conservative and opaque, and freedom-of-information laws have proven less effective than in some other countries. The threat of prison terms for journalists who seek or handle classified information is another provision that has drawn fire.

The government’s lame response to these complaints has been to say that officials would be required to “take into consideration” human rights and freedom of the press. Abe also promised to set up an agency to monitor what information was being made secret, but the powers and scope of such an agency were not incorporated into the legislation. One of the weakest aspects of governance in Japan, most political scientists agree, is oversight of the bureaucracy and public accountability for its decisions. There is no reason to believe this is about to improve––more likely, it will get worse.

Since the war Japan has not had a law directed specifically at protecting state secrets. This situation complemented the country’s constitutional restraint against belligerency as a means of settling international disputes: Japanese pacifism. “If Japan can never make war, what secrets does it need to protect?” or so the argument went. In some quarters, the country was regarded as a poor keeper of secrets. (It was always thus, if one looks back at the Allies’ success in breaking Japanese codes before and during the war and the activities of the Soviet spy Richard Sorge.) The United States, Japan’s ally, is a supporter of the new law, which its backers say is needed to facilitate intelligence sharing. Once upon a time, much critical intelligence did not need to leave the American “defense community” responsible for guarding Japan; increasingly, however, military burdens are being shared or taken over by Japanese agencies. The new law’s larger significance is how it fits into the LDP’s plans for constitutional change and the trend towards a more self-reliant or self-directed Japanese military posture.

Abe has used up a considerable amount of his political capital in getting the secrecy law through the Diet. Commentators have likened his methods to the “bad old days” of LDP hegemony in the 1960s and 1970s. Though Japanese voters may from time to time hand one party (or a coalition) a strong mandate, they prefer governments to approach controversial issues with delicacy, allow a full airing of opinions and strive for consensus, rather than muscle through. Abe’s approval rating recently slipped below 50% for the first time since he took office. The scars of this latest battle are unlikely to heal quickly. It will be difficult to assess the operation of the new law because of its very nature, but when it is breached and a whistleblower is brought to book, as inevitably will happen, the government may find it harder to deal with the consequences than it was to corral the Diet.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years. He is the author of “Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story”.

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