Last December the ruling Liberal Democratic Party rammed one of the most controversial bills in Japan’s postwar history through the Diet, or parliament, with an uncharacteristic lack of debate. The “Protection of Specially Designated Secrets Act” passed even as opposition politicians knocked over desks, chairs, and one another while trying to reach the podium to block it. Outside, nearly 10,000 protesters formed a human chain around the government building and chanted, “No Return to Fascism!”
The new law is stunningly broad. As an editorial in the leading Yomiuri newspaper noted, “The policy establishes a National Security Council for military matters and also creates comprehensive controls on foreign relations, the economy, and technological development.” At stake are central tenets of Japan’s democracy—the right to know, the right to a free press, the right to privacy—all of which the wide-ranging, ill-defined law imperils.
The law is also unpopular. By the end of December, 80 percent of the public called for revisiting or scrapping the law entirely. Sharp criticism continues to appear regularly in every form of media and from a wide variety of individuals and organizations, including Japan’s numerous press associations, the Japan Bar Association, and the Japan Medical Association. The latter is deeply alarmed by a provision in the law that requires doctors to divulge patient information, including about mental health. But the draconian legislation will go into effect this coming December, if its opponents are not able to stop it.
Why was the law enacted? In large part, it was an effort to please the United States—Japan’s most important ally. For decades, Washington’s key Japan handlers—“the Alliance managers”—have urged Japan to institute something like our NSC or NSA to control information inside the country and coordinate security between the two nations.
Ironically, though, some of the people in both nations who backed the secrecy legislation are now wondering if they got more than they wanted. Off the record, a colleague at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies told me: “Sure, we wanted it, but we never thought they’d do it or do it so fast.” A counterpart at the U.S. Department of Defense privately acknowledged, “We don’t actually know what they plan to do, or how they will do it.”
In the new law, definitions of “secrets” and their “violation” are most concerning because the terms are left so vague. They pit “matters of national security” and “national interests” against “terrorist activity.” But who will decide how to define those terms? Only those in control will decide what “terrorism” is, of course, and they themselves can never be labeled in such a pejorative way.
Although the law isn’t supposed to take effect for a year, the Tokyo metropolitan police wasted no time implementing part of it. On December 19 it was announced that officers would “screen the Internet for references that have malicious intent or differ from factual information.” The ruling party’s secretary general, Ishiba Shigeru, growled to journalists, “Protesters are the same as terrorists.”
Some citizens are understandably worried about how the law will affect anyone investigating the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plants. One Tokyo-based activist who goes by the name of “Sato-san” argues that those empowered to “screen . . . for references that . . . differ from factual information” can define anyone in disagreement with official statements about the Fukushima disasters as “in violation of national security” and thus “committing terrorist acts.”
Almost three years after the Fukushima disaster, nearly 300,000 Japanese remain internal refugees without compensation because they don’t trust official assurances that it is safe to return to their homes. Do their fears make them “terrorists”? What about such news organizations as Reuters that have reported that cleanup contractors are stealing public funds, failing to pay employees, and even rounding up homeless people to do the dirty work? In addition, millions of tons of poisoned water are still pouring into the Pacific Ocean. Will the scientists who investigate this be accused of violating national security, making them subject, in theory, to a ten-year jail sentence?
Taken together, the new law’s broad possibilities evoke memories of the 1930s, an era known in Japan as the “Valley of Darkness.” It was a time when many who criticized the militarist state were jailed, tortured, and murdered. What followed were the cataclysmic wars against China, the United States, and Great Britain. A poster appearing late at night on December 1 in Tokyo’s Shinjuku station captured this mood on the eve of the bill’s passage:
Jake Adelstein, a well-respected journalist in Japan, wrote on his blog, “Now, if someone says [Prime Minister Shinzō] Abe is an idiot, they can be arrested and jailed for revealing state secrets.”
Last September, two months before debate over the secrecy bill in the Diet began, Abe gave an astonishingly candid speech at a private luncheon in New York, assuring his backers that their views for Japan’s security strategy and future direction meshed with his own:
For the first time ever, Japan will establish its National Security Council. For the first time ever, we will publish a national security strategy in which we will state what Japan is committed to, and what our aims are. . . . So call me, if you want, a right-wing militarist. . . . Japan is one of the world’s most mature democracies. Thus, we must be a net contributor to the provision of the world’s welfare and security. And we will. Japan will contribute to the peace and stability of the region and the world even more proactively than before.
Given that Japan’s Constitution, adopted in 1947 during the U.S. occupation, still includes the famous clause outlawing war, the word “proactive” has an ominous sound. Most of the powerful American supporters of Abe who favor the “Japan-brand NSC” also urge him to amend the Constitution to allow Japanese troops to do what they already can: defend Japan on their own. Abe’s oxymoronic notion of “proactive peace” does not, therefore, stir this particular pot.
But the prime minister did embarrass his American friends when he stoked fear of a Japanese leadership that remains unapologetic about its nation’s aggression during the late 1930s and the Second World War. In late December Abe paid a surprise visit to Yasukuni, the notorious shrine to war dead in Tokyo where the souls of fourteen convicted class-A war criminals are honored.
Previous prime ministers also visited the shrine. But Abe is the first one to do so while at the same time declaring his intention to beef up Japan’s military capabilities, amid heightened tensions in the East China Sea involving China, Japan, and the United States. His visit sparked fury and condemnation from Asian governments, as expected. But a majority of Japanese disapproved, according to polls, and he received unprecedented rebukes from both current and former U.S. officials. In the months before the new Secrets Act was passed, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Tokyo to urge Abe not to visit the shrine. And in early January Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel called his Japanese counterpart Onodera Itsunori to convey displeasure with Abe’s behavior. According to one press report, Hagel specifically “underscored the importance of Japan taking steps to improve relations with its neighbors, and to promote cooperation in advancing the shared goals of regional peace and stability.”
How will this all play out? One aspect of recent Japanese history offers some troubling precedents for how “secret” Japan might operate in the future. For decades, groups of virulently right-wing citizens with a total of about 100,000 members have worked to suppress discussion of the atrocities Japanese troops committed during the Second World War and to prevent citizenship for ethnic minorities in Japan today. Organizations with such names as the Blood Revenge Corps, the Sane Thinkers, and the Organization to Deny Special Rights to Foreigners Living in Japan have unacknowledged ties to the political establishment, including to members of Abe’s inner circle. They have always focused on publicly shaming their liberal critics. But some groups have recently been calling for violent insurrection at home and/or military aggression abroad.
The members of these groups practice their thuggish behavior in the open. They drive around in menacing dark black or bright white vans, buses, and trucks covered in rising sun flags, blaring militaristic tunes from the 1930s and ’40s at the homes or workplaces of their targets: private residences, major newspapers, an embassy, universities. As their videos on YouTube and elsewhere demonstrate, the right-wingers openly condemn anyone they view as an impediment to their vision of Japan. During demonstrations in Tokyo in 2012 and 2013—especially on the March anniversary of the earthquake in 2011—the right-wing bands carried signs and screamed through megaphones about the virtues of nuclear power, denouncing their internal enemies as “anti-Japanese” or “not Japanese” at all.
Fortunately, Japan still has a constitutional, democratic system. Police have long tolerated—even facilitated—the right-wing groups’ behavior. Yet even with the new law in place, police are unlikely to model themselves on their North Korean neighbors or round up large numbers of people on trumped-up charges. If, however, surveillance programs silence dissent, arrests won’t be necessary.
Alexis Dudden has written extensively on Japan and Northeast Asia. She is professor of history at the University of Connecticut and a visiting research fellow at Princeton University.