Japanese push back hard against state secrets law

Prime Minister Abe's party instituted sharp limitations on leakers and journalists. Now, more than 80 percent of the public want the law changed and Abe's popularity has plummeted.

Yuya Shino/Reuters/File
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) listens to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso during a plenary session of the Lower House of the parliament in Tokyo Dec. 6, 2013.

The day after Japan’s parliament approved a controversial secrecy law, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to banish the mental clutter of governance with Zen meditation at a Tokyo temple.

After meditating, Mr. Abe said that the end of the bill’s stormy passage into law last week after days of angry protests “felt as though a storm had passed.”

But Abe’s sense of relief could turn out to have been premature. This week, his personal approval ratings went into free fall, as anger mounted over what many see as a high-handed attempt to muzzle potential whistleblowers and curtail the public’s right to know.

Under the new law, public officials found to have leaked information defined as a “special state secret” face up to 10 years in prison. Journalists who use “grossly inappropriate” means to obtain sensitive information could be jailed for up to five years. 

A poll by Kyodo News found that support for Abe's cabinet had sunk more than 10 percentage points since the bill passed, to 47.6 percent, the first time it had fallen below 50 percent since he took office almost exactly a year ago. Even more devastating was another Kyodo poll in which 82 percent of respondents believed the law should be revised or abolished.

Abe and his supporters say the law is necessary because Japan faces growing threats to its security from the tense geopolitical environment in the Asia-Pacific, and has no rules for designating and preserving state secrets.

According to its critics, the legislation risks dragging Japan back into the prewar era, when governments used the draconian Peace Preservation Law to silence opponents of the country’s militarist adventures in mainland Asia.

"It is a threat to democracy," said Keiichi Kiriyama, an editorial writer for the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, adding that the legislation would "have a chilling effect on public servants, who could become wary about giving the information" to journalists. 

Loose lips, and Edward Snowden

The law applies to four areas – defense, diplomacy, counterterrorism, and counterespionage – and gives senior officials from dozens of ministries and agencies the power to keep sensitive information out of the public domain for up to 60 years, and in some cases, indefinitely.

Abe insists the law is a non-negotiable accompaniment to his US-style National Security Council (NSC), approved days before the secrecy law passed.

Japan, the target of US criticism that it has let slip too many secrets in the past, has come under pressure to tighten its intelligence apparatus to enable the allies to share sensitive information amid mounting concern over Chinese territorial claims in the region and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

That need has taken on greater urgency, the thinking in Washington goes, in light of the intelligence leaks by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“[The law] has the effect of bringing Japan into line with the US model of how to run its intelligence services – placing them under the central control of the NSC,” says David Murakami Wood, Canada research chair in surveillance studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, who has studied Japan's secrecy law.  

“It is about the closing down of government information, and this is where there is a Snowden connection.”

Public demonstrations

The law’s passage was marked by noisy public demonstrations and opposition from journalists, lawyers, and politicians over the past two weeks. A group of academics called it the “largest ever danger to democracy in postwar Japan," while opponents in the film industry included the revered animated-film director Hayao Miyazaki. One of their chief criticisms is the law’s catchall definition of what constitutes a state secret, giving officials license to block the release of information on a vaguely defined range of subjects.

Matters considered too sensitive for public consumption could include Japan’s response to China’s growing military assertiveness – particularly the countries’ rival claims to islands in the East China Sea – or the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors.

“The definition of secrets is quite vague and any information which is not convenient for the government can be made secret,” says Sanae Fujita at the human rights center and school of law at Essex University in England. “No independent monitoring body has been set up, so the government can have extensive control of information.”

Muddy water for journalists 

The justice minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki, said police raids of newspapers suspected of breaking the law, raised fears that journalists, too, will be targeted.

Few were convinced by Abe’s attempts to dismiss claims that officials will abuse the law to shackle the media. “There is a misunderstanding,” he said. “It is obvious that normal reporting activity of journalists must not be a subject for punishment.”

The second in command of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, Shigeru Ishiba, muddied the waters when he suggested that reporters could fall foul of the new law. His comments came days after he was forced to apologize for likening antisecrecy law demonstrators to terrorists.

A distraction from economic goals

As Abe prepares to mark a year in office, generally upbeat appraisals from overseas of his handling of the economy risk being overshadowed by disquiet over his apparent authoritarian tendencies.

In a statement, Reporters Without Borders accused his government of “making investigative journalism illegal” and enacting a law “that gives it a free hand to classify any information considered too sensitive” as a state secret.

Fujita was even more scathing. “It reminds us of what happened in Japan just before World War II,” she said, adding that Dec. 6, the day the law passed, would be looked upon as one of national “regret and humiliation.”

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