Chipping away at constitutional freedoms

by David Mcneill

Just as for the United States, the cost to Japan of the Iraq adventure has not been limited to the financial. A series of test cases against antiwar activists has dismayed lawyers and human-rights activists, who say the post-9/11 Japanese state is attacking constitutional freedoms.

On Nov. 30, 2009, the Supreme Court declared 62-year-old Buddhist priest Yosei Arakawa guilty of trespassing for distributing antiwar fliers in a Tokyo condominium in December 2004. The court had almost nothing to say about Arakawa’s detention without trial for 23 days, or his argument that far more was at stake for everyone than the peace and tranquillity of one angry resident who apparently complained.

The previous year, the Supreme Court also ended a four-year legal battle between the state and three veteran peace activists based in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, when it ruled that they trespassed by putting antiwar fliers in the post boxes of Self-Defense Force members in February 2004. After years of peaceful and largely impotent campaigning, the arrest of the three, their detention for 75 days, and their historic conviction seemed to show that the authorities had decided to go to war against their ideological enemies.

“They need to neutralize people like us before they can get what they want: the end of Article 9,” said Toshiyuki Obora, 52, a school cook who is one of the convicted activists.

Obora and campaigning lawyer Hajime Kawaguchi were among those who predicted the same techniques would be used on other targets, and so it has proved.

In January, amid rising unemployment and resentment at Japan’s growing wealth disparities, a small group of anti-poverty protesters in Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district were harried by police and told by them that they could be arrested for distributing fliers.

According to eyewitnesses who were quoted online on Global Voices, an international network of citizen journalists, one police officer said: “(We’re doing this) to secure freedom of speech, to preserve the peace, the peace of the Japanese people.”

Other activists have been similarly targeted. Lawyers say the 2009 revision of the Public Safety and Security Ordinance, introduced under the Liberal Democratic Party, is another attempt to restrain public protests.

“If you send troops abroad, freedom declines at home,” says Kawaguchi.