Shinzo Abe owes Xi Jinping a debt of gratitude.
The buzz in Japanese cyberspace is that Chinese President Xi is wagging the dog by declaring a controversial “air-defense identification zone” across the East China Sea. The move has drastically ramped up tensions with Japan and the United States, both of which have blatantly disregarded Beijing’s unilateral edict. According to one prevailing theory, Xi is whipping up an international storm to change the subject domestically away from income inequality, official corruption and China’s blackening skies.
The leader benefiting most from the controversy, though, may be Japan’s Abe. With his own populace furious over China’s unilateral decree, the prime minister is seizing the opportunity to rush a chilling official-secrets bill into law.
The entire process has echoes of George Orwell. If enacted, the secrecy law would allow government ministries to declare just about anything they want classified. It now even appears that trying to cajole information from someone privy to a state secret could warrant jail time. In other words, if I grab a beer with a bureaucrat and ask the wrong question, could I end up in handcuffs? Ambiguity reigns.
Last week, the No. 2 official in Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, Shigeru Ishiba, issued a dark warning to anyone like me who might dare to question the bill. In a Nov. 29 blog post, the LDP secretary-general likened any such challenge to “an act of terrorism.” He’s since stood by his ominous statement.
No one would be surprised to see Syria or Cuba adopting a vaguely written law that could easily result in long jail terms for reporters and whistle-blowers. But a Group of Seven democracy?
“How can the government respond to growing demands for transparency from a public outraged by the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident if it enacts a law that gives it a free hand to classify any information considered too sensitive as a ‘state secret’?” Reporters Without Borders asked in a Nov. 27 statement.
Essentially, the group argued, Japan “is making investigative journalism illegal, and is trampling on the fundamental principles of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public interest.”
“Welcome to the land of the setting sun. Let’s see how much darker it will get,” Tokyo-based investigative reporter Jake Adelstein wrote in a Nov. 30 Japan Times op-ed. As Adelstein pointed out, the secrecy bill bears a resemblance to Japan’s pre-World War II Peace Preservation Law, which gave the government wide latitude to arrest and jail individuals who were out of step with its policies.
Parts of the bill also echo the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney power grab that was the Patriot Act.
Japan’s press-freedom ranking is already in free fall. In 2013, its standing dropped 31 places from 2012 to a new low of 53rd out of 179 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders. Japan now trails South Africa and the Comoro Islands off Mozambique. The main culprit behind this year’s drop was weak reporting on radiation risks at Fukushima — a problem that’s sure to get even worse as incentives for media self-censorship increase. If you think the powerful bureaucrats who really run Japan are too opaque with their fiefdoms and secret handshakes now, just wait.
What’s odd, and should greatly worry Japan’s 126 million people, is the urgency behind Abe’s push to pass the secrets bill. The prime minister hasn’t implemented a single structural reform in almost 12 months in office. Not one. He’s taken no important steps to deregulate, shake up or remake an overmanaged economy. But this particular legislation apparently needs to be passed, like, yesterday. If only Abe would put one-tenth this much energy into tweaking tax policies or empowering Japanese women.
“What’s driving this so soon after an election when it was barely mentioned is a mystery,” says legal scholar Colin Jones of Doshisha Law School in Kyoto.
The bill dovetails with the Nov. 27 creation of a U.S.-style national security council in Tokyo. In the post-Edward Snowden world, the U.S. is more paranoid than ever about sharing sensitive information. Proponents say the secrecy law is needed to ensure Japan remains a key link in the global intelligence-sharing chain. But Abe’s power grab goes too far.
The Japanese public supports Abe’s bid to defeat deflation and stand up to China, but it’s not with him on this issue. A new Asahi newspaper poll shows his public support has dropped below 50 percent thanks to the secrecy bill. Abe hopes to get this law passed by Dec. 6, and he appears to have the votes in the Diet to do so. It’s up to the terrorists — sorry, concerned members of the public to speak out if they want to stop him.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Contact him by email: email@example.com.