Through the stories of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and others, we are familiar with the ongoing struggle between whistleblowers and journalists on the one hand and governments on the other. One side seeks to reveal government misdeeds while the other works to keep its activities in the dark. What American progressives may not realize is that this same struggle is taking place in Japan, where Prime Minister Abe is trying to ram through a state secrets bill that would vastly restrict public access to information.
Under the bill, government workers who leak “designated secrets” could be jailed for ten years. That may sound light compared to Manning’s 35-year sentence, but the language of the bill is extremely vague and broad. For example, journalists who receive information “inappropriately” or “wrongfully” could face five years in prison. As “Prevention of terrorism” is one category of “designated secret”, the bill’s definition of terrorism is key: “an activity based on specific political or other principles and opinions and carried out to kill and wound people or destroy important or other facilities for the purpose of coercing the state or other people to accept the political or other principles and opinions or of causing anxiety or terror within society.” What with all the “or other”s and “causing anxiety” as a terrorist motive, this seems expressly designed to apply to as wide a range of activities as possible. But rest assured, the bill assigns a “third-party” to oversee the designation of secrets: the prime minister himself.
Abe and his lieutenants are quick to explain that the bill is needed to convince the United States to share intelligence with Japan. Indeed, the U.S. Charge d’Affairs says the bill would make Japan a “more effective alliance partner.” In a Japan where many look for security to the United States, that is supposed to end the argument. But in fact, a former top Japanese defense official knows of not one case when Japan failed to receive necessary information due to lack of a U.S.-approved secrets law. When Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) cites American gaiatsu (external pressure) as its reason for doing something, it usually has its own motives as well – in this case, the ability to do what it wants without public scrutiny.
As problems with the bill come to light, the public has grown increasingly skeptical, with one poll indicating only 14% support for passage by the end of the Diet session on December 6, and 63% saying they don’t trust the government to designate secrets properly. In spite of this opposition, the LDP seemed well-positioned to force the bill through, but thousands of anti-bill demonstrators got under the skin of LDP Secretary-General Ishiba, who compared them to terrorists, thus confirming the worst fears of many as to where loose definitions of terrorism would lead. Ishiba has since retracted the statement, but his real views are clear enough. He is a strong proponent of amending the Constitution, including Article 21, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association. This is unacceptable to the LDP, which wants to neuter it by adding: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, engaging in activities with the purpose of damaging the public interest or public order, or associating with others for such purposes, shall not be recognized.” At any rate, Ishiba’s indiscretion has caused an uproar that provides the faintest of hopes that the bill can be stopped.
Japanese history provides powerful instruction of the dangers of letting government secrecy run rampant. In the years leading up to war with the United States, the military had such firm control over information that critical facts were even kept from civilian members of the cabinet. This had grave consequences, for it meant that no one could challenge military leaders’ strident claims that victory was assured. Lest we think this is irrelevant to the present, the New York Times notes that the bill makes “no clear provision for sharing classified information with elected representatives.”
Activists worry that the law could seriously impede their work or even expose them to arrest. After two and a half years of Fukushima evasions, anti-nuclear activists suggest that in the name of protecting nuclear plants against terrorism, authorities could withhold even more information. In Okinawa, Abe is pressing forward on another U.S. priority – the construction of a new Marine Corp. air station in Henoko. Even if he is able to buy off enough local politicians, grassroots resistance will be undaunted. Should the administration respond with force, will it invoke the “prevention of terrorism” provision and bar journalists from reporting on that response?
Americans engaged in similar struggles might show some solidarity with these activists and their fight for access to information. Furthermore, much of what right-wing governments in Japan are likely to declare as “designated secrets” will involve the United States. Indeed, when the U.S. presses for such a law, it is clearly U.S. secrets that it wants protected. If Japanese citizens are prevented from knowing critical facts, so will we.