The spirit of Japan’s new state secrets law may officially be about protecting national security by restricting the release of information about defense and diplomacy, or keeping information needed to prevent terrorist attacks and “specified harmful activities” confidential.

However, the new law, which took effect Dec. 10, is not just applicable to bureaucrats and major defense-related firms. Lawyers warn the letter of the law, and especially the required background checks on those handling state secrets, could impact a broad range of academic research as well.

The government had named 382 subject areas as state secrets requiring protection under the law.

Kyoto-based lawyer Akitoshi Ozaki, who has written about the potential problems scientific researchers face under the new law, said the most basic problem is that there is no person or organ with strong independent legal authority to oversee what kinds of scientific research should and should not be targeted for confidentiality.

“What I’m really concerned about is that any researcher could possibly be targeted at the government’s convenience as being engaged in secret work,” he said.

Although the Diet was tasked with creating bodies that would review the validity of information designated as state secrets last year, political and bureaucratic wrangling meant the law went into force without such oversight.

Three bodies — two offices and one individual — are currently in charge of overseeing designations of state secrets: the so-called independent public archives management officer at the Cabinet Office, an information protection organ, also in the Cabinet Office, and a protection and inspection committee under the Cabinet Secretariat.

The public archives management officer, however, only has the power to advise and cannot legally reverse a decision to classify information.

The Cabinet Secretariat committee is made up of senior bureaucrats, raising concerns that there is no truly independent, outside watchdog with the legal authority or political will to prevent an excessive designation of state secrets.

Although the government insists that not all research is being targeted, Ozaki questioned where the line might be drawn, citing examples elsewhere.

“In 2011, the United States, through the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), stopped the public release of a research paper related to avian influenza virus studies, saying there was a possibility the information could be used for terrorist purposes. But the research was about (bird flu) infected mammals, and was unrelated to terrorism,” he said.

The NSABB recommended the paper’s methodology and details only be given to a small group of scientists but not the public. A columnist in Nature magazine called the NSABB’s restriction of access to the scientific methods and data “akin to censorship and counter to science, progress, and public health.”

The law makes it clear that researchers in defense-related organizations could see their work deemed confidential.

Defense Ministry figures show it has direct contracts with around 1,500 firms, including those supplying food and medical products. Over 1,000 are involved in the production of tanks, ships and warplanes, and between 70 and 80 percent of these are small and medium-size enterprises.

Ozaki noted, however, that the guidelines for designating secrets under the law could affect research in dual-use areas.

“The guidelines don’t specify research related to fighter planes will be targeted for classification, just ‘airplanes and other materials for defense use and their research and development,’ ” Ozaki said. “Industries involved in the manufacture of airplane propellers would be likely targets for classification (as secret), and those engaged in aviation research could find they’re being targeted as well.”

Cybersecurity, especially pressure from the United States over guarding defense-related secrets and communications, was a major impetus for the secrets law, and there is broad scope for deeming data as confidential.

“Research on anti-virus software or computer linguistics could end up being classified, and researchers in those fields may find themselves targeted for background checks. This would include not only those at universities and large computer firms, but also subcontractors,” Ozaki said.

In the diplomatic realm, the classification of information is likely to create problems not only for journalists and others seeking the truth about government policy today, but also for future academic researchers.

Yufuko Hayata, who represents a group of lawyers who wrote a book last year about problems stemming from the state secrets law, said political scientists, both foreign and Japanese, who specialize in research on Japan could face roadblocks in the years to come.

“It may be much harder for them to determine how and why past political decisions were made, because the information needed to understand the process that led to the decision is classified,” Hayata said.

Such concerns are also shared by The Historical Science Society of Japan, a consortium of groups involved in historical research, education and the archiving of historical documents.

In 2013, the society warned that, because there was no specific guarantee that each government agency would move its classified material to the National Archives for public release after the classification period ended, there was a danger that historical research would be negatively affected.

Universities and firms doing research that might be targeted for confidentiality are not yet asking detailed questions, Ozaki said, because the law is so new. However, because what will be classified as secret is itself essentially a secret, that could change.

“Issues about academic freedom and the need for classifying research will likely arise as the law is exercised more,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.