Japan has never had a strong tradition of freedom of speech or transparency as the events in the past two years have confirmed, and matters do not seem to be improving.
Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan states, “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.”
Yet on Thursday, November 26th, the “State Secrecy Bill” was rammed through lower house of Parliament – the more powerful of the two chambers – and is expected to pass in the upper house in December. This is conveniently in time for the establishment of a National Security Council.
According to the New York Times, this secrecy bill gives the Japanese government almost unfettered power to classify any information it deems a “state secret” as off limits and punishable with up to 10 years in prison. Unfortunately, what constitutes a “state secret” is extremely vague and open to interpretation, making professions such as investigative journalism a perilous undertaking.
The BBC writes that 23 types of information were outlined that heads of ministries and agencies can decide to make secret, including issues pertaining to defence, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. Effectively, any politically embarrassing information could be classified as secret, making whistle-blowing on matters relating to nuclear-plants, for example, obvious candidates for censorship.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party claimed the law was necessary to share national security issues with the United States and other allies. In fact, this bill was passed alongside a bill to create the aforementioned National Security Council, a move that was swiftly approved by the Diet due to Japan's rising concerns regarding the threat posed by an aggressively expansionist China that has recently announced an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.
The New York Times also explains that these bills may be the first steps towards Prime Minister Abe’s long-sought goal of revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution to allow for a fully fledged military. China’s bellicose posturing offered the perfect opportunity for such a seismic shift in Japan's national attitudes on said topic.
The bill also comes at a handy time for Japan, when muzzling the press on information regarding the Fukushima nuclear disaster will curtail any other potential embarrassments before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Secrecy Bill immediately faced criticism by reporters, freedom of speech campaigners as well as pop culture stars such as Norika Fujiwara, who claimed, “Once the bill is signed, the people who will write the truth on the Internet (or through other means) will be punished … When I think of all the consequences that it will lead to, it really bothers me.”
Others have voiced their concerns regarding the bill’s power to prosecute not only officials, but also journalists and university researchers who could receive leaked information.
Abe's move has been largely unpopular. Bloomberg explains that according to a recent poll, the cabinet’s approval rating fell to 49%. History shows that if this figure drops to 30%, the government will most likely crumble within a year.
What's more, Reporters Without Borders have dropped Japan's press freedom index by 31 places, making the land of the rising sun fall behind South Korea, Comoros (a tiny island off Mozambique) and South Africa. “Lack of transparency and almost zero respect for access to information on subjects directly or indirectly related to Fukushima” have slammed Japan in 53rd place out of 179.
When one-thousand protestors rallied outside the prime minister’s office during the bill’s ratification, LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, 56, commented, such conduct was akin to an “act of terrorism.” He was promptly chided by Akihiro Ohata, secretary-general of the opposition party, DPJ, who urged Ishiba to “change his mindset.”
Ishiba's comment did not stop 170 protestors in Nagoya from demonstrating against the newly enacted bill, writes Asahi News. One protestor vented, “Being called terrorists for criticizing government policies. Is this country really a democracy?”
The Japanese press lobby, Nihon Shinbun Kyokai, also attacked the Secrecy Bill stating it could be used “to hide inconvenient information”, which The Economist sardonically explains is “an honourable Japanese tradition.”
This is not far from the truth. Entirely avoidable blunders such as that of thousands of evacuees from Namie, a town near the Fukushima power plant, who temporarily were housed in another town, Nihonmatsu, could have been averted if only information had not been withheld by the Japanese government. Nihonmatsu was directly hit by a radioactive plume as bureaucrats in Tokyo, operating in a culture that seeks to avoid responsibility and criticism, left their forecasts of the spread of radioactive releases unpublicized.
An article in Asahi News by Yoshinori Kobayashi argues that what Abe’s government is currently doing is a form of machismo – muscle flexing in front of the ever increasing anti-Japanese sentiment simmering in China and Korea. He asks his readers to question whether such a measure is truly “for the country.”
In another article published on December 1st, Christine Haruka invites readers to think carefully about why the bill was written with such vague terminology, why it was hastily promulgated and why nobody is clearly able to explain what exactly constitutes state secrets. She concludes by saying, “Now, there is great drama in our parliament. Now, tensions are at their highest. It is now that we must keep an eye on this Parliament.”