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.”
-Article 21, Chapter III, Constitution of Japan
In a report by Reporters Without Borders, ever since the second administration of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012, Japan’s civil liberties have been in decline. This has been caused by the growing media self-censorship among reporters within the kisha club or reporter’s club system, the sudden dismissal of news anchors critical toward the Abe administration, and the passing of legislation that would further encourage self-censorship, widespread wiretapping, and mass surveillance.
The State Secrecy Law
On December 10, 2014, the controversial State Secrecy Law, officially the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, was enacted despite public protest. The law was a result of the Abe administration’s desire to strengthen the alliance with the United States in intelligence sharing and to remove Japan’s stigma as a “spy heaven”. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s ruling party, has been trying to strengthen its lax state secrecy protection law since 1957, however, due to great public opposition, the agenda was shelved for decades. With the present global challenges that Japan faces such as the “War on Terror” and the challenges of China and North Korea, the agenda was brought back on the table. In addition, the country has also experienced a series of state secret leakages since the early 2000s which caused the United States to question its confidence towards Japan.
Nonetheless, the State Secrecy Law has been heavily scrutinized due to its vagueness, severity of punishment, and lack of independent oversight. The forcible passage of the law itself despite strong opposition and calls for careful discussion is already controversial. The parliamentary and public consultation of the bill was only done in a short period of seven weeks which did not give the opposition ample time to discuss their points. Thus, on December 06, 2013 the controversial bill was voted into law without revisions. The implementation of the law, though for the purpose of Japan’s national security and international image, have greatly enforced the already deteriorating press freedom in Japan. Why is that? Firstly, provisions of the state secrecy law have been heavily criticized for its vagueness in classifying “state secrets” and the classification process is left at the hands of the government agencies without any third party involvement. There’s no certain limit to the designation of certain types of “state secrets” and there’s no mechanism to punish government officials who would classify information as “state secrets” for self-serving purposes. Secondly, the severity of the punishment for leaking information classified as “state secrets” is up to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of 10 million yen (US $100,000) for government servants and five years in prison for journalists. This is harsher than the 1-year imprisonment punishment from the pre-existing law. Considering these and with the kisha club system combined, the reporters and broadcasters in Japan would have to carefully think of what they should report and not. This is especially in cases of being critical towards the government. The Japanese media people feel like they are tiptoeing on thin ice. Thus, encouraging self-censorship and reducing the plurality of the press.
The Anti-Terror Conspiracy Law
A few years after the enactment of the State Secrecy Law, the Abe administration pushed another controversial law despite widespread public opposition. Similarly to the aforementioned law, the Anti-Terror Conspiracy Law, although devised in response to the global challenge of terrorism, is being criticized as a tool in toppling civil liberties. In defense of the Abe administration, the law is necessary in order for the country to ratify the UN convention it signed against transnational organized crimes. Its passage is also timely in strengthening the country’s security for the coming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Nonetheless, oppositions questioned the 277 crimes that could be linked to terrorism and organized crimes listed under the law such as copying music, and sit-ins to protest the construction of apartment buildings. They find it unconvincing that another more possible revenue for terrorism like marine poaching is not included in the list. Furthermore, the law increases the surveillance powers of the police in which critics expressed their concerns on Japan becoming a surveillance society. With the vagueness of what would constitute as “planning” such powers could possibly lead to undue restrictions on an individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression. It can restrict even acts of protests towards the government and treating it as an act of conspiracy towards the state.
After the enactment
It has been a few years since the two laws were enacted and news regarding their issues seems to have either toned down or have completely stopped. Perhaps the silence is a good thing which might mean that there were no further issues. Or perhaps it is the opposite, the years of ongoing media silence regarding the law is evidence of its triumph in encouraging self-censorship in the Japanese media. The oppositions seem to also have quiet down. As Sarah Repucci, the Project Director of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World, stated: “sometimes you don’t even need to implement a law if by its existence you are able to encourage self-censorship”.
How far will the Abe administration undermine civil liberties under the banner of protecting national security? And how can the oppositions effectively counter or prevent the passage of another law that undermines civil liberties? In the present Japanese society where democracy’s watchdogs have become lapdogs of those who undermine it, the strengthening and coming together of the opposition might be a possible solution. In doing so, as reminded by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die, the guardrails of democracy, namely the norms of mutual tolerance between parties and institutional forbearance should be kept in mind. Also, instead of placing debates on these issues under the carpet to be forgotten, an increase in public discourse regarding these democratic issues within the Japanese society would also be for the better.
Halperin, M. H., & Hofsommer, M. M. (2014). Japan’s Secrecy Law and International Standards. ASIA-PACIFIC JOURNAL-JAPAN FOCUS, 12(37).
Repeta L. (2014). “Japan’s 2013 State Secrecy Act — The Abe Administration’s Threat to News Reporting 2013”. ASIA-PACIFIC JOURNAL-JAPAN FOCUS. 12(10)
BBC News. (2017). “Japan passes controversial anti-terror conspiracy law”. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40283730
Kyodo. (2017). “Japan close to ushering in new wave of mass surveillance, Snowden warns”. The Japan Times. Retrieved from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/06/01/national/japan-close-ushering-new-wave-mass-surveillance-snowden-warns/#.XeNyxuhKjIU
McCurry, J. (2017). “Japan passes ‘brutal’ counter-terror law despite fears over civil liberties”. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/15/japan-passes-brutal-new-terror-law-which-opponents-fear-will-quash-freedoms
Fackler, M. (2016). “The Silencing of Japan’s Free Press”. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/05/27/the-silencing-of-japans-free-press-shinzo-abe-media/
Pollman, M. (2015). “Japan’s Controversial State Secret Law: One Year Later”. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: https://thediplomat.com/2015/12/japans-controversial-state-secrets-law-one-year-later/ Photo Retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/t8T_yUgCKSM