Earlier in December, the normally sedate Japanese Parliament disintegrated into chaos. Opposition party members screamed, pounded the speaker’s desk and flapped papers in his face — but all in vain.
In a shocking display of brute force, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, railroaded into law a sweeping, vague and hastily drafted secrets protection bill.
The tough new law intended to protect state secrets was a victory for Washington, which had long pressured its Asian ally to exert tighter control over classified information. But the controversial legislation has triggered widespread outrage in Japan and undermined the prime minister’s popularity.
“If information about our jet fighters or warships were leaked, it would endanger Japan,” Abe said later in a televised address. “To protect lives, we must prevent intelligence from reaching terrorists. To secure life and property, we had to enact the secrecy law as quickly as possible.”
The penalties for violators are harsh: 10 years in prison for civil servants who leak classified information; five years for citizens convicted of abetting leaks. The law covers defense, diplomacy, counterterrorism and counterintelligence. But it also empowers bureaucrats — not just in defense, but throughout government — to lock away documents for up to 60 years.
Antagonism to Abe’s secrecy law is almost universal. Over 80 percent of respondents to a Kyodo News Service poll called for dumping or rewriting it, and a recent protest drew 10,000 demonstrators.
The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and press groups, including Reporters Without Borders, have denounced the legislation, especially in the wake of revelations about government mismanagement that helped trigger the Fukushima nuclear accident.
While many Japanese see the official secrets law as a massive step backward for civil liberties in Japan, Washington is celebrating. American officials and the U.S. military have long demanded that Japan adopt American-style regulations to allow the seamless sharing of intelligence.
Last month, Caroline Kennedy, in one of her first public statements as U.S. ambassador to Japan, added her endorsement for a Japanese secrets law.
“We support the evolution of Japan’s security policies, as they create a new national security strategy, establish a National Security Council, and take steps to protect national security secrets,” she said.
Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based research associate with MIT’s Center for International Studies, says the law “is really only for the U.S., only for U.S. consumption.”
And, he adds, the law is overkill.
“The real irony of the whole thing is that Japan’s media and Japan’s government officials have been excellent at protecting secrets and in fact, overprotective of secrets,” he says. “In a historical view, we have no Aldrich Ames, we have no [Edward] Snowdens in Japanese history — people who gave up secrets for money or fame.”
Government transparency advocates like Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, say the impact on journalism and whistle-blowing in Japan could be calamitous, because Japan’s safeguards on freedom of information are weak.
“In the United States, we have a really well-developed legal history of the importance of a free press, of the role of the courts in protecting the press from excessive government, potential interference,” Repeta says. “In Japan we do not have any of that kind of history.”
Japanese courts have never ruled in favor of the press in cases of journalistic freedom. The country’s lone precedent, a Supreme Court case in 1978, upheld the conviction of a journalist on national security grounds — although the information he published had been declassified in the U.S.
With relations deteriorating between Japan and its neighbors, Repeta argues that giving Tokyo broad powers to conceal its actions is not in Washington’s best interests.
“By creating this very broad secrecy power in Japan, we have increased the risk of military confrontation and risk to the United States,” he says. “American policy, as I understand it, is to promote democratic, transparent government. This law does precisely the opposite. It creates risks that were not there before.”
Next year he seeks to lift Japan’s ban on collective defense, allowing Japanese troops to engage in combat overseas with allied forces. With his party in control of both houses of Parliament, there are few obstacles in his way.
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