Brushing aside outcries from the opposition camp, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition rammed a contentious bill to criminalize conspiracy through the Diet Thursday morning, achieved by resorting to a rare tactic of bypassing committee-level approval.

The enactment of the revised anti-organized crime law came amid staunch criticism that it could curtail civil liberties such as the right to privacy, upending a long-standing principle in the nation’s criminal law that one can only be punished after committing a crime.

At the same time, it was a triumphant moment for Abe, who has spent the bulk of the ordinary Diet session touting the bill as a much-needed boost to Japan’s counterterrorism capability.

“As we prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, we believe the bill will play an instrumental role in protecting the livelihood and property of Japanese people as it strengthens our cooperation with the international community in responding to terrorist attacks,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday.

The expedited pace with which the bill was passed, however, suggested Abe wanted to wrap up the Diet session as soon as possible to avoid being grilled by the opposition over allegations of favoritism involving the Okayama-based Kake Gakuen school operator run by his close friend.

In passing the legislation, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, resorted to the highly unusual tactic of skipping a vote in the Upper House Committee on Judicial Affairs that was originally planned for Thursday, instead sending it straight to the chamber’s plenary session for passage.

“What’s the rush? You didn’t want us to bring up the Kake Gakuen scandal anymore?” asked Renho, leader of the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, at a plenary session of the Upper House before the vote. “I can’t help but think the way the bill is being steamrolled represents the government’s wish to hurry up and end this Diet session.”

She added: “It is unforgivable that the ruling coalition has become a yes-man for Prime Minister Abe and abandoned its responsibility to supervise the government.”

Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University, said it’s “very much possible” that Abe wanted to minimize confrontation with the opposition by avoiding any extension of the Diet session, scheduled to wrap up on Sunday.

Another possible factor, he said, is connected to the fact that the Committee on Judicial Affairs was chaired by Komeito lawmaker Kozo Akino.

Komeito, which regards winning next month’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election as one of its highest priorities, apparently felt it couldn’t risk antagonizing voters by making Akino look responsible for paving the way for the divisive bill’s advance to the plenary session, Narita said.

Not convinced of the government assertion that the bill will only target suspected terrorists, opposition lawmakers have argued it could be abused by law enforcement to crack down on ordinary citizens suspected of planning crimes, turning Japan into what they call a surveillance society.

Joseph Cannataci, a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy, has expressed his concern over “the risks of arbitrary application” of the law as well as its fundamentally vague definition of what would constitute “planning” and “preparatory actions.”

Among 277 acts subject to the revised anti-organized crime law are those seemingly unrelated to organized crime and terrorism, including the theft of forestry products, copyright infringement and digging up graves.

Asked what preparing for these offenses has to do with organized crime, Justice Ministry official Makoto Hayashi told the Diet in May that a gang of criminals, for example, dug up and collected high-quality mountain sand worth ¥40 million for the purpose of selling it.

As for copyright violations, Hayashi said it is possible that the mobsters could plot to rake in profits by pirating CDs. It cannot be entirely ruled out, Hayashi added, that organized crime groups could try to excavate graves and steal expensive gifts dedicated to the deceased.

Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda stood by the position that the law is legitimate.

“The scope of the bill is limited to organized crime syndicates, and it’s only after preparations for crimes are made that one becomes punishable. In this sense, we believe criteria for what would constitute a crime under the revised law is clear,” he told the Upper House plenary session on Thursday morning.

Prior to the bill’s passage, the outraged opposition camp mounted a last-minute effort to thwart its vote by submitting a series of motions against Abe’s ruling bloc.

On Wednesday night, the DP, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party jointly submitted to the Lower House a no-confidence motion against Abe’s Cabinet.

“There is absolutely no way we can tolerate such a forcible attempt to pass the legislation,” said Kazunori Yamanoi, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party.

“Prime Minister Abe cannot conclude the Diet session before fulfilling his responsibility to explain to the public his involvement in the (Kake Gakuen) scandal,” Yamanoi said.

On Thursday, the education ministry disclosed the outcome of a recently reopened investigation into the existence of internal documents suggesting Abe exerted influence to help his close confidant open a new veterinary department at a university in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.

“That would be extremely insincere of him,” Yamanoi said.

The motion was struck down by the LDP-Komeito coalition in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Earlier, the prospect of the bill being ramrodded through the Diet prompted opposition lawmakers to ask Upper House President Chuichi Date to dismiss what they called the “heavy-handed” maneuvering of the ruling camp that sought to skip deliberations at the judicial affairs committee.

“If the chairman allowed such a move, it would be tantamount to the Upper House committing suicide,” Yoshiki Yamashita, a senior Upper House member of the Japanese Communist Party, told reporters.

Although not illegal, the tactics adopted by the LDP are out of keeping with standard Diet protocol.

Such a break with well-established practice is typically reserved for when the ruling party wants to pass an important bill that has allowed for adequate discussion at the committee level, but still faces stonewalling in a committee chaired by an opposition lawmaker who wants to delay the vote.

Opposition lawmakers said Wednesday this should not apply to the conspiracy bill, which has so far been deliberated in the Upper House for less than 20 hours and is being discussed in a committee chaired by a Komeito lawmaker. The Lower House passed the bill after 30 hours of deliberation.

Gravediggers beware: new conspiracy law casts wide net

The following are controversial examples of the 277 acts that could be subject to the conspiracy law if suspects are defined as part of “terrorist groups or other organized crime groups.”

  • Copyright infringement: The government says an organized crime group could raise funds through sales of pirated CDs.
  • Theft of forest products: The government assumes a criminal organization could steal valuable types of soil and sell them on the black market. The main opposition Democratic Party warns that a group could be penalized for making concrete plans to, for example, take fungi from a forest.
  • Excavation of graves: The government assumes that members of an organized crime group could steal valuable items dedicated to the dead left behind in graves.
  • Inspection of locations related to any of the 277 crimes: Opposition lawmakers warn that people preparing for a hanami cherry-blossom viewing party could be penalized if authorities suspect their belongings are related to a crime.

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