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How the word ‘terrorism’ can help pass a bill

by

Special To The Japan Times

During the recent Diet grilling over his alleged involvement in the Moritomo Gakuen land purchase scandal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accused his opposition party tormentors of resorting to inshō sōsa. The most accurate English translation is probably “image manipulation,” which, in the age of fake news, sounds like a term that should be in heavier circulation. Tokyo Shimbun has already flung it back at Abe in its reporting of the anti-conspiracy bill that was approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday.

The bill will soon be debated in the Diet. It’s the fourth time that has happened. Under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the Liberal Democratic Party tried twice to get it approved, and the Democratic Party of Japan once pushed its own version. Those efforts failed because many felt the law’s interpretation of what constitutes a criminal conspiracy would allow the authorities to use it to spy on citizens and harass groups it disagrees with politically. In 2013, Japan approved the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which allows for the sharing of information on organized crime activities, and the government says it needs the anti-conspiracy law in order to ratify the convention, an assertion disputed by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

The LDP is also saying it has to pass the bill as an anti-terrorism measure before Tokyo can hold the 2020 Olympic Games. Opposition lawmakers, as well as several in the ruling coalition, have questioned this justification. TV Asahi’s Hodo Station called the relevant U.N. administrator, who said the convention does not expressly target terrorist groups. Its main function is to fortify efforts to prevent cross-border crimes such as human trafficking, drug dealing and money laundering.

This is where Tokyo Shimbun’s charge of image manipulation comes in. By framing the bill as an anti-terrorism measure, Abe can more easily sell it to the public, which didn’t buy it under previous incarnations. The LDP always refers to the bill — a revision to an existing law — as a means for punishing “crimes of preparation for terrorism and others,” with the word “others” giving the authorities license to define organized criminal behavior broadly.

According to a Kyodo News survey, public support for the bill was 42.6 percent in January, with 40.7 percent of respondents saying they were against it. Other surveys showed a larger gap due to a higher percentage of citizens in the support column. When Tokyo Shimbun went out on the street earlier this month and talked to passersby about the bill, they found that people fixated on the anti-terrorism aspect.

The newspaper’s reporter interviewed 10 individuals outside Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. They were asked if they supported the bill, using the LDP’s name for it, which includes the word “terrorism.” Initially, five people said they did, three opposed it and two couldn’t decide. But after the reporter pointed out to the five supporters that Japan already has laws that address terrorist activities, they changed their minds. A 66-year-old truck driver admitted that he “didn’t trust the police,” so the law now seemed scary to him. A 65-year-old taxi driver and a 68-year-old company employee both reversed their answer when they learned that almost none of the 277 crimes covered by the bill have anything directly to do with terrorism. And a 70-year-old woman finally changed her position when she realized that she had been mistaking the word “conspiracy crime” for “violent crime,” both of which are pronounced in Japanese the same way — kyōbōzai.

The Mainichi Shimbun went further. In a March 20 feature, it looked at how different media outlets, including its own, were handling the matter of explaining the bill’s meaning. The article stressed that the Mainichi Shimbun put the word “kyōbōzai” in quotes when included in headlines, while the more conservative Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun did not, thus indicating that those two newspapers took the government’s approach to “conspiracy” at face value. In its own survey regarding the law, the Mainichi Shimbun did not use the word “terrorism” in any of the questions, with the result being 41 percent opposed to the law and 30 percent in favor. NHK’s survey, on the other hand, said that the purpose of the law was to “prevent crimes and terrorism by organized means,” and the support rate was 45 percent. Only 11 percent of NHK respondents voiced opposition to the bill.

In a March 4 editorial, the Sankei Shimbun made an aggressive case in favor of the bill, which it said should be “passed without hesitation.” Recognizing that lack of the word “terrorism” in the text of the law may confuse people, Sankei called on the Ministry of Justice to insert “terrorist groups” in the wording as one example of organized crime, theorizing that maybe the ministry didn’t include the term originally because of a bureaucratic aversion to putting “foreign words” in official documents.

In any case, “terrorism” is now the operative word in the ruling coalition’s references to the law, despite the fact that, as Tokyo Shimbun insisted in its March 3 feature, the bill is essentially the same one that was rejected three times in the past. On March 17, the Asahi Shimbun provided a detailed example of what could be considered a crime under the law, specifically an activity carried out by yakuza. What’s immediately noticeable in the example is how easy it is for people to be arrested based on accusations by informants and witnesses who hold grudges.

The police say the new law will make it easier for them to prevent crimes, but as one prosecutor told the Asahi Shimbun it is difficult to prove a conspiracy before the commission of a crime without informants and surveillance networks. Such a situation, says a lawyer in the article, will invariably lead to the repression of ideas and a social environment suffused with paranoia, which means the terrorists win, regardless of whether or not any are actually in Japan.