National / Politics

More distrust, less harmony if law pits local patriarchs against Tokyo secrecy fetishists

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The state secrets law allows for the designation of 55 items related to national security. But as the new law prepares to go into effect, it’s not clear if municipal and prefectural authorities are on the same page as the central government about the need for it or what will happen if classification creates political problems at the local level.

Nineteen of the 55 items deal with defense and target for classification such things as operational plans and research, both for the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military in Japan, as well as related intelligence received from foreign governments and international organizations.

There are 17 diplomacy-related areas in which information could be classified. These include negotiations on plans and cooperation agreements between Japan and foreign governments and organizations.

Another 10 items cover something called “specially designated harmful activities.” They include research and plans related to measures to stop activities so designated from spreading, initiatives to stop cybercrime, and efforts to prevent of nuclear, chemical or biological agents from entering the country. The last nine items include information about halting the spread of terrorism.

If many of the items on the list have a less immediately visible impact on local politics, with the exception of areas like Okinawa, where there is an overbearing U.S. military presence, the justification for the last 19 in particular holds the potential for turmoil.

Beyond the obvious questions of what is meant by “harmful activities” or “terrorism” lies a more fundamental issue: At what point is a “state” secret no longer merely national in nature but one that infringes upon “local” autonomy?

Tokyo bureaucrats with a fetish for secrecy and a taste for power are apt to see “terrorists” everywhere they look, and to view any unauthorized activity — that is, activity not conducted by themselves — as “harmful.” But local police, assemblies and town heads don’t always share such views, and this is where concerns of effective cooperation between state and local authorities arise.

Skeptical local governments may not wish to provide such information to Tokyo, especially about local residents, out of a belief that it falls outside the realm of the state secrets law. Likewise, they may request information about defense, diplomacy, or anti-terrorism measures in their prefecture or municipality that they deem necessary to enact local policies, only to be told it is classified and off-limits.

In either case, there is a danger the result will be less cooperation and heightened distrust between local and central government politicians and bureaucrats, which in turn could lead to communication breakdowns.

The stated official purpose of the secrets law is the protection of Japan against foreign and domestic threats by withholding information that could jeopardize efforts to realize this goal. But the massive national opposition toward the passage of the law may be a sign, with local elections looming next spring, of the more local political, legal and bureaucratic skirmishes to come once the law goes into force in December.