Northeast Asia | Japan's democracy in retreat or responding to new world order?
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks set to keep his job, based on surveys of voters ahead of the general election on October 22, 2017.

Whither Japan's democracy?

To some observers, retired civil servant Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, has become a symbol of modern Japan's uneasy attitude towards dissent

June 27, 2017 3:44 PM (UTC+8)

To some observers, protester Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, has become a symbol of modern Japan’s uneasy attitude towards dissent.

The retired civil servant, a long-standing campaigner against the US military presence in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, was detained for five months from October last year before he was released on bail in March.

Yamashiro admitted cutting a barbed wire fence, but pleaded not guilty to subsequent charges of injuring a defense official and obstructing relocation work by placing blocks in front of a gate.

According to his supporters, Yamashiro is a tireless peace advocate whose continued detention was disproportionate to his alleged behavior.

To the authorities who arrested him, his actions went beyond those of  peaceful protest and transgressed criminal laws.

Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, a campaigner against the US military presence in Okinawa prefecture, addresses the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Photo: Daniel Hurst
Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, a campaigner against the US military presence in Okinawa prefecture, addresses the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Photo: Daniel Hurst

Either way, his yet-to-be-finalized case has attracted so much international attention that he was invited to travel to Geneva earlier this month to address the UN Human Rights Council.

Now Yamashiro is seeking to shine a spotlight on Japan’s new anti-conspiracy law, which according to human rights groups and lawyers risks increased government surveillance and arbitrary arrest.

“The fact that a country like Japan has passed such a terrible law indicates the extent to which democracy is in retreat in this country,” the head of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center said during a press conference in Tokyo late last week.

“It’s something that I feel very sad about and very angry about and I would like the international community to focus upon it.”

Terror justification

Japan’s postwar constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, assembly, association, speech, press “and all other forms of expression” – yet critics say they see as a gradual erosion of those rights.

Such concerns grew when Japan’s ruling bloc pushed the anti-conspiracy bill through the upper house in mid-June.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government argued the legislation would help prevent terrorism ahead of large-scale events like the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The law targets two or more persons who, “as part of activities of terrorist groups or other organized criminal groups,” plan to carry out certain criminal acts.

The 277 crimes covered by the law also include planning to steal forestry products or to breach copyright. Jail terms of up to five years are possible depending on the crime.

When a UN special rapporteur warned Japan’s government in an open letter that the vague legislation could usher in “undue restrictions” on freedom of expression and privacy, the authorities reacted angrily.

The criticism was called “one-sided” and “obviously inappropriate,” with government officials saying they had not been given a chance to provide information before the letter was published.

Abe, whose popularity has slipped in recent opinion polls, moved to assure the country that “ordinary people” would not face investigation.

“Although we feel [the law] is essential for strengthening international coordination in dealing with terrorism, we’re aware that some members of the public remain uneasy and concerned about it,” the prime minister said at a press conference last week.

International backlash

The UN special rapporteur for privacy, Professor Joseph Cannataci, highlighted the vague definition of planning and preparatory actions and the “over-broad range of crimes” covered.

He told Asia Times he had felt compelled to write the open letter because of the extremely short legislative deadline that the government had set itself.

Cannataci, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, described the official response as “disappointing but not surprising.” He said he was “the third UN special rapporteur in a row whom the Japanese government has decided to be confrontational with.”

“I stand by every single word, full-stop and comma in my letter of the 18th May,” Cannataci said in an email this week.

“If anything, the way the Japanese government has behaved in response to my letter has convinced me even further of the validity of its content and the appropriateness of its timing and form.”

He added: “There has been a deafening silence on the part of the Abe government on the privacy safeguards which I have alleged are missing in Japanese law and the Japanese government has failed to explain, in public or in private, how the new law provides new remedies for privacy protection in a situation where it creates the legal basis where more surveillance could be carried out.”

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said last month: “It is not at all the case that the legislation would be implemented arbitrarily so as to inappropriately restrict the right to privacy and freedom of speech.”

‘Chilling effect’

Cannataci’s concerns are shared by a number of non-government organizations.

Hiroka Shoji, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said the definition of an organized crime group was not limited to terrorist cells.

“Civil society organizations working on areas around national security can be subjected to this category,” Shoji said in an email.

Kazuko Ito, secretary general of the advocacy group Human Rights Now, said in an email: “Even if the judiciary narrowly determine and exonerate the targeted people in the end of the day, they are already targeted for arbitrary surveillance, wiretapping, arrest or detention – these are enough to smash civil society activities and will cause a significant chilling effect.”

Justice minister, Katsutoshi Kaneda, denies that the legislation is vague, arguing it is “expressly limited to organized criminal groups, the applicable crimes are listed and clearly defined and it applies only once actual preparatory actions have taken place.”

Anti-base protester Yamashiro, who was charged under pre-existing laws, views the new legislation as “a great threat”.

“I was arrested for obstruction of a public official, but under the new legislation even if you don’t do what it is that is against the law – if you’re just planning it or discussing it with other people – that is enough basis for an arrest to be made,” he said.

Press freedom concerns

The concerns come against a backdrop of claims that press freedom is deteriorating in Japan. The country declined in the global press freedom rankings issued by Reporters Without Borders, from 11th in 2010 to 72nd in the most recent review.

However, the reliability of that ranking is questioned by some observers.

The academic and consultant Michael Thomas Cucek, for example, has previously pointed to the “astonishing” volatility in Japan’s ranking and raised the possibility of the surveyed experts exaggerating the extent of repression in their own country.

Methodology questions aside, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, David Kaye, has identified what he called “significant worrying signals” in Japan.

“The direct and indirect pressure of government officials over media, the limited space for debating some historical events and the increased restrictions on information access based on national security grounds require attention lest they undermine Japan’s democratic foundations,” Kaye wrote in a report published in May.

Kaye called for safeguards to be added to the state secrets law enacted in late 2013, which allows bureaucrats to be jailed for up to 10 years for revealing specially designated information.

Under Article 25 of the state secrets law, journalists could potentially face a prison term of up to five years under a provision targeting “a person who conspires with, induces or incites another person” to release such secrets.

However, the law offers protection to news reporting “as long as it has the sole aim of furthering the public interest and is not found to have been done in violation of laws or regulations or through the use of extremely unjustifiable means.”

The Japanese government has said it “does not intend to apply Article 25’s harsh penalties to journalists.” And in a broader rebuke to Kaye, it said most of his arguments were based on hearsay or assumptions.

“It is hard for the government of Japan to avoid expressing sincere regret concerning those biased recommendations,” the government said in a formal response.

It cited the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and added that “there is no such fact that government of Japan officials and members of the Japanese ruling party have put pressure on journalists illegally and wrongfully.”

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said officials were unlikely to act on previous comments by some lawmakers about the possibility of suspending broadcasting licenses for bias.

“But just making noises about doing so sends a chilling message, a shot across the bow of an already cowering media that may constrain coverage,” Kingston wrote in the book Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan, published earlier this year.

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