Japan: The new Uzbekistan of press freedom in Asia

by Jake Adelstein

Special To The Japan Times

If you’re living in Japan, you may be surprised to know that your right to know has been replaced by the right to remain silent. Shhh … don’t protest. It’s practically a done deal.

The first rule of the pending state secrets bill is that a secret is a secret. The second rule is that anyone who leaks a secret and/or a reporter who makes it public via a published report or broadcast can face up to 10 years in prison. The third rule is that there are no rules as to which government agencies can declare information to be a state secret and no checks on them to determine that they don’t abuse the privilege; even defunct agencies can rule their information to be secret. The fourth rule is that anything pertaining to nuclear energy is a state secret, which means there will no longer be any problems with nuclear power in this country because we won’t know anything about it. And what we don’t know can’t hurt us.

The right to know has now officially been superseded by the right of the government to make sure you don’t know what they don’t want you to know.

Welcome to the new Dark Ages of Japan, brought to you by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and Your Party. If the economy and the actions of the government and its politicians seemed opaque up to now, the ruling bloc is making sure that it’s very solid obsidian. Every major news organization in Japan opposes the bill. Last week, thousands of ordinary citizens took to the street to protest the proposed legislation.

The LDP — ever sensitive to the will of the people — took decisive action to address the issue last Tuesday. A debate was held in the morning and televised by state broadcaster NHK. As soon as NHK cut off the broadcast, the LDP ended the debate and rammed the bill through the Lower House. Democracy in action. Only the Upper House remains.

The law has been compared to the pre-World War II Peace Preservation Law, which was used to arrest and jail any individual who opposed the government party line. “Japan already has a very weak freedom of information act which this will cripple,” said Yutaka Saito, a member of the Japan In-House Lawyers Association task force. “The bill takes everything bad about national security laws in the U.S. and then removes all the safeguards and checks.”

According to one survey, more than 80 percent of the public feels that the new law will be misused by the government to coverup scandals, corruption and troubling information. That mistrust in the government is well founded: the Minamata disease coverup on behalf of corporate interests in the ’60s; the HIV-tainted blood scandal in the ’90s; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s moves to bury a whistle-blower report on nuclear safety problems at Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in 2000.

Abe has assured us that the regulations for the bill clearly state that a third party organization should be put in place to keep checks on the system.


Should is an interesting word. You should brush your teeth. You should pay your taxes.

You should believe Prime Minister Abe when he tells that he doesn’t know notorious yakuza financier Icchu Nagamoto — even though he had his photo taken with him in 2008.

We should believe Abe and yet I don’t. Japan should have a society where people have a right to know what their government is doing and where freedom of the press is guaranteed.

Abe’s suggestion that there should be oversight does not mean that there will be. And judging by recent history, even if a token oversight committee is created, it will be about as effective as protecting the public’s right to know as the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency was in preventing a triple nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

On Nov. 27, Reporters Without Borders condemned the legislation cogently. “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’?” the organization said. “By imposing heavy penalties on those who obtain classified information . . . and then publish it, Parliament is making investigative journalism illegal, and is trampling on the fundamental principles of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and ‘public interest.’ ”

Reporters Without Borders also noted that Japan’s ranking in the press freedom index had taken a record fall of 31 places from its position in 2012 to a new low of 53 out of 179 countries.

If the state secrets law is passed, Japan’s press freedom ranking next year is expected to sink to nearly Uzbekistan or China levels. Welcome to the land of the setting sun. Let’s see how much darker it will get.

  • citizenzombie

    So? Have you written a copy of this for the Japanese people? In Japanese?

    • Vince Stagbaugh

      My bet is that the Japanese citizenry knew about this before the foreign population living in Japan knew. The foreign papers are the last to print the “news.”

    • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

      Given the amount of protesting currently going on, it’s probably not necessary. The bigger issue here is the number of Japanese who simply do not care.

    • Diego Armando Rincon

      As a foreigner living in Japan it’s really sad and frustrating to see how almost every Japanese person I know cares only about what they were taught to do. Most of the people don’t have dreams of their own, neither they care for things that don’t “concern” them. How worrying about the problems and issues in the government will make an engineer better at it’s job? Why should the nuclear problems in Fukushima be something to worry about for those living in the south? I don’t understand why but sadly I’ve never been able to have a proper discussion with a Japanese person about the nuclear problem. Even during class when the topic was mentioned I was told by the teacher to “let it go” because there were more “important” topics we needed to “study”.

      • Rikito Ogawa

        Perhaps your Japanese level isn’t up to a degree where you can fluidly discuss these topics. I find many people are very interested in Okinawa about these topics, if you can explain to them why there is such gravity in them. I have found the only issue I have ever had about getting people to care, fall on my inability to communicate, not their reluctance to understand. I feel your judgement of the Japanese is very close minded and borders the line between distinction and racism. Your anecdote is one that is pushing back foreign and Japanese race relations, and as a Half Japanese American Citizen, I kindly ask you to take care in your words next time.

      • Diego Armando Rincon

        You are probably right about me not being able to explain the gravity of the matter properly. However, it’s not a matter of language. I’ve tried to have this kind of conversations with Japanese who are fluent in English and Spanish. Same results for the majority of the cases.
        Now, I do apologize for the the words I chose to express myself, but I do not apologize for the message I was trying to convey, which I will try to explain shortly. I will take care when expressing myself next time, but you also need to do the same. Not because I’m offended by what you said but because classifying someone’s opinion as judgemental and racist can take a discussion to a completely different level.
        When I said “…almost every Japanese person I know cares only about what they were taught to do.”, I definitely didn’t emphasise in the right place. I didn’t mean to blame it on the average Japanese citizen but in the system, particularly in the education system. Kids are being taught to be and behave like someone they are not and care about things they shouldn’t. This is not a matter of racism but a matter of seeing how each person’s identity has to be sacrificed for a “grater good”, which in many cases is nothing else than the government trying to protect their public image.
        One last thing, there’s nothing wrong with foreign and Japanese race relations. From all the places I’ve been to I haven’t seen anyone to be treated more kindly than Japanese people. Their respect and humbleness allows them to be loved wherever they go. Now, there may be many problems with foreign and Japanese relations but it terms of nations, and that’s a matter of politics not race.

      • Steve Novosel

        Diego, I have these sorts of conversations with Japanese people all the time. In general, political topics are considered impolite conversation (and opinions on politics and religion to be privately held and inviolate) – but that hardly means that people don’t care about such things.

        You can look at 2ch or Twitter and see tons of in depth conversations about all aspects of Japanese life.

        You might want to be careful about strongly overgeneralizing about national characteristics like “almost every Japanese person I know cares only about what they were taught to do” – a whole lot of people will take very strong offense to such generalizations, and they probably won’t tell you so.

    • Steve Novosel

      Jake’s getting all his information from Japanese sources, this is nothing that’s not already being said in Japanese.

      English follows Japanese reporting in Japan, not vice versa.

  • phu

    It’s painful to watch Japan go through this. As an American watching the depravity of my own government become more and more embarrassingly clear (to us and to the rest of the world), watching the Japanese government sprint in the same direction is awful.

    This is a good and frightening comparison: “The bill takes everything bad about national security laws in the U.S. and then removes all the safeguards and checks.”

    It’d be nice if democratic governments listened to their people. You know, like they’re supposed to. That they don’t is old news, but lately they’re nonchalantly throwing away all pretense at caring about our rights and our future.

    • It would be nice if ‘the people’ understood the problems with the system and stopped sanctioning a system which make human rights impossible. But I leave people to their rhetoric. Listen to whom? Everyone? With all their ambivalent ideas?

    • kyushuphil

      Yes, “phu” — most painful to watch as a guest American in Japan.

      And, in both countries, the worst trends have sources, origins, in each nation’s schools.

      Here in Japan everything about the personal, or the potentially embarrassing, or anything personally challenging all get shut down. Students don’t learn to see anything difficult by learning skills — say, of essay writing — to locate things in larger contexts. Silence is the great god. And that leads either to “hikikomori” and damari-komu 黙り込む for the weakest, or to all the kabuki of tatemae 建前 and tabō-dō 多忙道 for those who think by being busy, busy they can further ignore, never develop the personal.

      Maybe it’s worse in America, where the numbers games of standardized testing crush the schools at one end and, at the other, “higher” end, departmentalism narrows everyone’s humanity and biz ed commercial vulgarities crush out everything else.

      • Steve Novosel

        kyushuphil, when i saw you had commented I made a little bet with myself that you would lament the lack of essay writing as the root cause of this social ill as well, and sure enough, you did.

        You do realize that essay writing has absolutely nothing to do with this, right?

      • TheRealMark

        I think what he means is the focus on rote-memory style learning as compared to critical-thinking training. You don’t get any critical thinking out of mathematics and science but essay writing is a key component in forming an argument and analyzing other’s.

  • Steve McClure

    I suppose it’s just a matter of time for the Tokko (Thought Police) to be re-established. But we probably won’t learn of that until after the fact — because it will be a secret.

    • Mark Makino

      I think Tokko are kamikaze, not thought police.

      • Sven

        特攻=特別攻撃 = Kamikaze (suicide attack)
        特高=特別高等警察 = Thought police

      • syrup16g

        You are correct. 特攻 special attack = kamikaze

  • Finally Fixed

    Thank GOD they finally can close the lid on all the people that want to warn the public with facts and truth. Who cares about facts…or truth?

    Know the truth and facts about terrible things going on just upsets people. It also slows down the process of quality criminal behavior and profitable political corruption which in turn, costs political criminals billions for defense lawyers to defend themselves when people find out they have been stealing billions in taxes. With this great new SECRETS LAW, stealing and poisoning the public will be so easy! No need to pay-off news editors not to write fact-filled, truthful stories. No need to warn people of nuclear waste covering over them. No need to tell people food is contaminated (that’s so upsetting)…NOW they can be totally ignorant and they can eat their contaminated food in peace and die in quiet confusion.

    Lawyers and courts will become a thing of the pass because no one will be able sue any politicians, corporations, bankers, or anyone that has power and money! Why? Because ALL the information that would be evidence could be classified “Secret” and ALL lawsuits then are stopped dead! How great is that!

    Soon here in the US we will have this great new approach to allow for a total shutdown of truth and factual information. The savings on newspaper will save countless trees and make people so at peace with themselves because, ignorance is peace of mind! A totally oblivious public that lives in the darkness of ignorance is, the easiest to rule and take advantage of. It’s a dictator’s dream!

  • J Blair

    Every nation is run by sociopaths – and nothing is going to change so long as the majority of people are willfully ignorant. So you may as well wait for hell to freeze over – and its only going to progress as technology advances – and it will dramatically progress to an eventual THX1138 type society. That is, if we don’t all die first.

  • Timing is everything. Why now?

    Which 1,000 pound gorilla needs hiding?

  • Brandon

    To echo an interesting question: does this mean that SOFA matters can be ruled as ‘secret’ and not be reported on by the Japanese government?

    The knee-jerk reaction to this question is that the US Government will try to ‘cover up’ the crimes committed by service members when stationed abroad in Japan. I will agree that conducting damage control in these situations can walk the line of cover-up and preventing an international incident.

    On the other hand, it has always seemed as though reporters in Japan see the misconduct of another government’s military imposing in their country is an easy target for controversy to satisfy whatever varying agendas they may have. Hence why crimes committed by the Japanese simply aren’t given much weight in relation to a US service member getting a DUI, breaking curfew, or a disgusting crime like rape.

    It’s not that it doesn’t happen locally, but the focus is on the outsider.

    Now, this is just my opinion here, but I would think that this bill will be of benefit to the Japanese government in terms of their international dealings in matters such as the US military being here as well as in ongoing stalemates like their land dispute with China. The less the public knows about it, the less people can insert their opinions and get the netizens all riled up.

    tl;dr, 1984 is going global.

  • UnderPo

    South Korea passed the state secrets bill in the 1960s thanks to a military coup. It still applies today. Maybe Japanese politicians got their bad ideas from South Korea.

    • jef

      Well, that might as well be. But the LDP definitely brought it to completely a whole new level. Not even the National Security Law of South Korea wouldn’t dare to give the government carte blanche of designating practically anything a state secret.

  • HvacNews

    i think we get the freedoms we deserve

  • Cameron Purdie

    Looks like Japan got worried after what happened in the US. Wonder what they’re hiding.

    • Andrew BlackWolf

      Carmen, can you please explain what happened in the u.s. and how it can be linked to this discussion?

      • Have you heard of a man called Edward Snowden, or the NSA? If not, google them.

  • John Dennis Roberts

    I think one of the best books I’ve ever read on the apparent political apathy of Japanese civil society is THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER by KAR EL VON WOLFEREN. And I think the deliberate inculcation of what amounts to a deeply authoritarian and paternalistic state ideology that is disguised as culture is to blame. South East Asian culture in general seems to to have never rid itself of a belief in benevolent despotism.

    • 無買デージャパン

      Wow, you really love generalizations, don’t you? Hm, south east asian culture…. japanese culture….

      Can you read Japanese? Try to look at Japanese language sources, labornet.jp, ourplanet-tv.org and many other trustworthy independent news organizations and you can see easily that a good many people here as everywhere cherish freedom, abhor war and are ready to stand up and fight. What is more, the quiet majority stands with them (recent polls show the average person is against this law, and that their estimation of this government has dropped considerably because of it). It’s just that the LDP after winning back in the last election has lost all respect the voter.

      The risks and tenetiousness people in the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea have gone to throw out dictators has not been seen in the West for many centuries. Even in relatively ‘tame’ Hong Kong, people go to great lengths to defend human rights.

  • 無買デージャパン

    Why did reporting about this start only when it is practically too late? Individual journalists (including some big names from big media), the BAR association and civil rights groups have been campaigning for months on the issue. But nothing on the top pages until just before the bill passed the lower house. I can easily guess the reasons for mainstream media’s underreporting/misreporting of many issues, but this one does not make sense to me. It means practically everything any news organization does will be illegal. What are they going to print? AK48 lyrics on the top page of the Yomiuri? Do they expect to make a living solely with pictures of the prime minister waving to the crowds? It is ruinous for news business and yet they are doing nothing. They are either very stupid or very afraid (precisely of what?), or both is my conclusion so far.

    Anyone with background insight, by all means enlighten us.

  • We are very pleased with the decision of this law by our government. This law will be mainly used to keep our military secrets safe. That’s all.

  • Bagaboo

    But Uzbekistan is in Asia. Kind of a dumb metaphor.