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Passage of contentious secrets law ends extra Diet session

• Reform push falls victim to secrecy
• Forceful tactics preserve loophole
• LDP arm-twisting alienates allies

by

Staff Writer

The extraordinary Diet session effectively closed Saturday morning after the House of Councilors enacted the state secrecy law despite raucous protests from the opposition camp.

In his policy speech in October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had said it would be a “growth strategy Diet” session, but critics said it was actually a “state secrecy Diet session” because much of the time was spent deliberating the contentious secrets bill at the expense of other legislation, such as amendments to the civil servants law or approval of an atomic energy agreement with Turkey, which is necessary to export power plant technology and equipment.

“Abe basically in June promised by the end of the year sweeping structural reform, but I do not think anybody believes that he has seized the chance,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s Japan Campus. “He spent political capital on the secrecy and the national security council bills.”

Still, the Diet did enact several key economy-related laws, including those to enhance industrial competitiveness and set up a special economic zone to expedite deregulation and encourage capital investment.

But critics say the new laws can’t be considered structural reforms because the nation’s rigid labor rules remain intact and companies are still banned from owning farmland, changes they say are necessary to bring about sweeping changes in Japan.

Critics said the law enacted to allow over-the-counter drugs sales online didn’t fully deliver because 28 products, including the lucrative hair loss remedy RiUP, were barred over consumer safety concerns.

Kingston said it is notable that the bill mandating the breakup of the regional electricity monopolies was passed, because it is the first step to generating competition. Under the law, the electricity market is to be liberalized and the generation and transmission businesses split up by 2020. But it is not clear how well non-utility companies will fare in the market, given the enormous power and clout the existing regional power firms have.

Meanwhile, the forcible passage and enactment of the state secrecy bill apparently demonstrates the high-handed attitude the Liberal Democratic Party has adopted since achieving a comfortable Lower House majority with junior coalition partner New Komeito in last December’s general election.

The turmoil in the opposition was highlighted when the Upper House put the secrecy bill to a vote late Friday night. The Democratic Party of Japan left the floor while the contentious bill was being explained but returned to vote against it for failing to provide for a highly independent body that can check the government’s decisions on designating state secrets.

Even though Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party agreed with the coalition bloc on amendments proposed for the bill, both parties walked away during the vote to protest the arm-twisting tactics of the ruling camp. Your Party had backed the bill’s passage in the Lower House.

The Social Democratic Party, Japanese Communist Party and Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party) are the only ones that opposed the bill from the beginning. They said the bill was so flawed that no number of amendments could rectify its potential ability to infringe on the public’s right to know.

Critics said the opposition failed to walk in lockstep and to offer alternatives to the LDP. The DPJ’s stance, for example, was apparently so vague that it submitted four pieces of legislation, similar to the government-sponsored secrecy bill, instead of simply demanding that it be scrapped.

“Nippon Ishin and Your Party by nature are not opposition parties but the satellite parties of the LDP,” said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano, who noted their support for amending the war-renouncing Constitution. “The DPJ tried to be an alternative but ended up on a wrong footing, because it was hard for the party to oppose it due to the fact that a working group was set up under the (previous) DPJ government to mull a similar bill.”

Even so, the opposition camp criticized the ruling camp’s strong-arm tactics throughout the extra Diet session. Two Upper House committee chairs for Cabinet matters and economy and industry — and both DPJ members — were sacked because the ruling camp said they were intentionally delaying the deliberations.

A regional public hearing on the secrecy bill was unilaterally set up by the ruing bloc without consulting the opposition camp until the day before it was held. Due to the short notice, only 30 people participated instead of 50 and the session was shortened to 60 minutes from the original 2½ hours.

Meanwhile, critics said Abe’s popularity might suffer from enacting the state secrecy law in such a forcible manner and despite strong public opposition.

The LDP took a drubbing in the 2007 Upper House election during Abe’s first stint as prime minister as the neoconservative leader chased a revisionist agenda that included amending the basic education law to allow greater government control over textbook contents.

According to a recent Asahi Shimbun poll, more than 80 percent of the respondents said the secrets bill did not have to be enacted during this Diet session and that more deliberation was necessary. Demonstrations against the plan took place across the country, and Nobel laureates, movie stars and numerous citizens’ groups rallied against the bill.

Public opposition was so fierce that LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba cited it in a blog post where he equated the public’s reaction to the bill as an act of terrorism.

“Rather than creating momentum, it created a strong backlash against Abe,” said Kingston. “I think it may be a turning point.”