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Mean streets feared under Tokyo’s new safety law

Is Tokyo ordinance designed to save shoppers from mass killers, or an attempt to smash protests?

by David Mcneill

Last month a group of activists called Dystopia Tokyo called a protest against what they described as a “Draconian” new city ordinance by conservative Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Ishihara was revising an existing public safety law to allow “Orwellian” city-center crackdowns on street demos, public performances and the homeless, warned the group. “Even foreigners walking in commercial districts can be categorized as ‘nuisances.’ “

Few Tokyoites seem terribly concerned: The March 22 demonstration in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district drew just a smattering of seasoned activists, including some non-Japanese and a lone cross-dresser who claimed even he wasn’t safe from the cops.

“Anybody the government doesn’t like can be banned from the streets.”

Tokyo, however, insists that the revision, which was passed by the city assembly on March 27 and took effect on April 1, is toothless and simply an attempt to improve the “safety and security of shopping areas.”

Adding to the mystery over the widely different interpretations of the revision is its unusual origins. Reports say the government was forced to respond to complaints from retailers in Akihabara after female street performers exposed their panties.

So are the authorities simply protecting Tokyo’s shoppers from transvestites, flashers and marauding foreigners? No, say campaigners against the revision, who warn that it is a Trojan horse for something far more sinister.

“I see it as political,” says Tokyo lawyer Kanta Hagio. He scoffs at the metropolitan government’s explanation of why it has been introduced now and says the move is part of a long-planned bid to forcibly restrain public protests.

“The revision of the Public Safety and Security Ordinance reflects the will of the security authorities to control social movements. From the beginning, it has been backed up by the Tokyo Government and the police.”

Behind the revision is a recent and unexpected upsurge in street demos, says Hagio, citing a small march by antipoverty campaigners last October on the ¥6.2 billion Shibuya home of Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Called to draw attention to Japan’s growing wealth gap, the march was broken up by police, who arrested three men for violating the public safety ordinance and obstructing official duties. The arrests — and aggressive police tactics — were captured on an activist’s camera and posted on YouTube, where the footage attracted over 180,000 hits.

Although the men were released after the customary cooling-off period, the cops were subsequently criticized in Diet questioning, an embarrassment to the Tokyo authorities, say campaigners. They believe a surge of antipoverty movements on the streets and the growing annual “rights for foreigners” marches have also set off alarm bells in City Hall.

Hagio, Dystopia Tokyo and a group of activist lawyers called Jiyu Hosodan (The Japan Lawyers’ Association for Freedom) argue that the true purpose of the ordinance is betrayed by the rightwing composition of both the group behind it and the Safety and Security Promotion Council (suishin kyogikai) that oversees it.

Besides Ishihara, former deputy Gov. Yutaka Takehana is an ex-police bureaucrat and a staunch educational conservative who has aggressively pushed the flag and anthem issue in Tokyo schools.

Keiji Oda founded the Japan Guardian Angels, a controversial volunteer group of anticrime vigilantes; Masahide Maeda, a law professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, is a security professional who is calling for an expansion of CCTV surveillance cameras in the city, and so on.

Such men are worried about threats to public order far more widely defined than street jugglers and hawkers, says Jiyu Hosodan, which warns that “Freedom will disappear from Tokyo’s commercial districts.”

But the Tokyo government denies accusations of political motives. The “guideline” does not “force” people to do anything, argues Satoru Goto, head of the city’s Office of Youth Affairs and Public Safety, who says its purpose is to encourage downtown Tokyo hankagai businesses and residents to stop acts of “public nuisance” in the interests of safety and security.

Although lawyers are still digesting these claims, what that seems to mean in practice is that the Security Council issues an “alert” when it believes such activities are imminent. In addition, city-center dwellers who feel threatened or alarmed by something they’ve witnessed on the streets of Tokyo are encouraged to tell the authorities.

Retailers are already being urged to educate employees on crime prevention and install more CCTV cameras in shopping districts. The 2003 by-law, which was introduced to “promote autonomous activities by metropolitan residents and others to prevent crimes,” has also led to the now familiar sight of local citizen crime patrols.

Tokyo still has far fewer surveillance cameras than comparable big cities such as London, but despite much lower levels of street crime, the cameras are a growing feature of life here.

Police in some areas of the city, including the upmarket district of Seijo, have already begun asking residents and businesses to set up private security cameras at their own expense.

Activists fear the cameras could be used to monitor the faces of peaceful demonstrators, in effect enlisting private citizens into doing unpaid work for the police. They are also disturbed by the vagueness of the ordinance’s wording, particularly over the definition of public “nuisance,” a criticism partially accepted by Tokyo.

“We do not define what a nuisance performance is,” says Goto, who insists that the alert carries no legal weight and is entirely voluntary. “We have no right to say ‘stop.’ There is no enforcement, so no violation of rights will occur.”

An image comes irresistibly to mind of a hypersensitive Akihabara shopkeeper reaching for the phone after an attack of the vapors brought on by a mini-skirted “cosplay” performer. But Goto insists that the guideline is in the public interest.

“The (original) ordinance of 2003 was introduced to enhance safety and security in the downtown area. It aimed at voluntary security activities of business owners and residences. The backdrop to the current revision is increasing incidents in which downtown visitors have become victims of crimes by yakuza, scam artists and other unlawful acts.”

He says last summer’s mass killing in Akihabara by disturbed temp worker Tomohiro Kato was another factor behind the 2009 revisions.

How exactly the guidelines could have prevented Kato from going on his murderous rampage is unclear, and in any case this is beside the point, says Hagio, who argues that existing laws are perfectly adequate to deal with problems on the street. He believes that the definitions of “nuisance” and “public disorder” have been deliberately left wide open to arbitrary interpretation.

“Performance on the street is guaranteed under the principle of freedom of expression (enshrined in Articles 21 and 28 of the Japanese Constitution) which, by its nature, includes some degree of nuisance.”

“The ordinance does not understand this nature of freedom of expression and is ready to mobilize the police to intervene or control it. Downtown is a public space, very different from hospitals and such places where nuisances are not tolerated.”

One very likely concrete outcome of the revision is the formation of neighborhood associations of retailers, cops, government and local citizens who will be empowered to police downtown areas in a way that The Japan Times described this month as “quite intrusive”: conducting patrols and “enlightening” on “preventing activities that disturb the public order of towns,” such as performances on streets “that cause great trouble to people,” preventing the illegal employment of foreigners and “prohibiting the disposal of garbage and cigarette butts, and smoking while walking.”

A planned government campaign of public awareness in posters and over the Web could push already mild moral panic about the safety of Tokyo’s street into something uglier, warn opponents.

Eventually, they say, the ordinance could be used to ban any action by unions or antipoverty campaigners at a time when unemployment and opposition to neoliberal policies in Japan is growing.

“The targets will not be limited to performers or activists,” says Dystopia Tokyo. “This is a cynical attempt to raise distrust and anxiety and create an environment where everyone monitors each other.”

That’s why at last month’s demonstration, several protesters wore banners saying: “Am I a suspicious person too?”

“Literally anyone can be treated as suspicious,” said one. “Even someone like you.”

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