On June 4, Okinawa prefectural police raided the home of entomologist Akino Miyagi after she dumped waste she’d found in a Yambaru forest, an area destined to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the front gate of the U.S. military’s Northern Training Center in April.

Miyagi, who has been studying the forest, said the gesture was a form of protest, since the area is littered with debris — some of it hazardous — discarded by U.S. forces that used it for training in the past. When she complained to police about the garbage, they ignored her, hence the protest.

The raid, during which police confiscated Miyagi’s phone and computer, was cited by journalist Shigeru Handa, who often covers defense issues, on the web program Democracy Times as he discussed a new law that, for the sake of national security, purportedly restricts the sale of properties to foreign parties. The law was passed on June 16, but when Handa discussed it it had yet to get through the Upper House, where he was scheduled to appear as an expert. Though the bill ostensibly targets foreign agents, Handa said its real purpose is to allow the government to monitor the actions of Japanese. Had the law already been in effect, Miyagi could have been subjected to an investigation even before she deposited the American military’s trash on its doorstep.

The bill had been in the works for a long time, but only since this spring, as its fate was discussed in the Diet, was there any serious press consideration given to its ramifications. A survey of newspaper editorials by Sankei Biz on April 5 explained that the bill was finalized by the Cabinet on March 26 “to regulate sales and usage of properties” located near facilities associated with national defense. The original concern, according to Sankei Biz, was that Chinese and South Korean capital was being used to “buy up” land on remote islands or adjacent to Self-Defense Forces (SDF) facilities.

Sankei Biz reported that both the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun fully supported the bill, which Yomiuri said must be passed “before it’s too late.” Sankei Shimbun was more specific, saying that in addition to facilities in Japan belonging to the SDF and the U.S. military, the law should also apply to land surrounding nuclear power plants and Japan Coast Guard facilities. The law would mandate that sales to foreign interests be approved by the central government, and that such approval would involve investigations into the purpose of the transaction and the background of the potential buyer. If the government finds something amiss, it can block the sale. Non-compliance can result in fines and prison time.

Though the Sankei Biz article mentions a Mainichi Shimbun editorial that talked about opposition to the bill, most major media took its content at face value. One journalist who challenged the entire premise of the law was Shunji Taoka, who called it “stupid” during a different Democracy Times program, adding that it sprang from a paranoid right-wing campaign to demonize people from Hong Kong who invested in properties near Hokkaido ski resorts more than a decade ago. The idea that foreign agents would buy fixed properties next door to sensitive facilities in order to spy on them or interfere with operations is ridiculous, said Taoka. That’s not how intelligence works. Countries now have access to satellites and drones, and most covert schemes involve cyberattacks and internet stalking, which can be done from anywhere. In a similar vein, the Asahi Shimbun reported on June 16 that there were almost no examples of land adjacent to sensitive facilities being owned by foreign entities, much less any evidence of foreign property owners compromising national security.

Taoka suggested the bill is about more than monitoring foreign purchases of real estate. Originally, it covered properties within one kilometer of a sensitive facility, but the distance limitation has since become ambiguous. More significantly, all real estate transactions could be covered by the present version of the bill, and not just those involving foreigners.

These matters were the concern of a bipartisan group of local elected officials who tried to defeat the bill. According to a report in Tokyo Shimbun the group said that the law might be used to abridge the civil rights of their constituents. A number of officials interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun were afraid that anyone who had any complaint about the way U.S. or SDF bases are operated could be investigated. Local governments would be compelled by the central government to turn over private data about residents, and the law now covers almost any form of infrastructure, including railways and broadcasting facilities. A lawyer who read the text of the bill told Tokyo Shimbun that its stated purpose is to “maintain basic living situations and security,” which means almost anything can apply.

Both Handa and Taoka explained during their respective discussions how the bill was purposely vague and that all the details would be determined by the prime minister after it is passed into law. Though there is a panel that is supposed to advise the prime minister on these matters, there is no rule that says the government has to follow their recommendations. In the end, it’s all up to the Cabinet.

Handa saw the Miyagi raid as a preview of what may become more common once the law is implemented, but the anti-base movement in Okinawa was already convinced that the law will be used against them. If the government is genuinely afraid of foreign elements spying on or interfering with matters vital to Japan’s security, it should fashion a law that specifically outlines measures to address that perceived problem without affecting civil liberties. This law doesn’t really do that.

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