One person’s definition of public security will not be the same as another’s. Concepts of what constitutes the peace, safety and order of society — and perhaps more importantly, what endangers them — also change at different periods of history. With the Cold War long over, however, most unbiased observers would not consider Japan’s fledgling volunteer citizens’ action groups, private ombudsmen’s groups and private organizations of writers and journalists to pose any threat to the nation. The government’s Public Security Investigation Agency apparently does not agree.

The revelation by a Japanese news service that three years ago the agency, which is affiliated with the Justice Ministry, issued written instructions to its eight regional bureaus to keep an eye on the activities of a long list of such groups is deeply disturbing. At least it is to those who recognize that constant vigilance by the citizenry, not by the police, is the necessary price of democratic freedoms. Unfortunately, memories grow dim as generations with personal experience of World War II age and die. Many people alive today, however, remember well the activities, the excesses, of the nation’s wartime “thought police.”

There can be no justification today for conducting surreptitious surveillance of such private organizations as the Japan Congress of Journalists and the Japan P.E.N. Club. And what could possibly be the reasoning behind the agency’s monitoring of volunteer citizens’ groups dealing with the major social problems of school bullying and the growing numbers of children who refuse to attend school? For that matter, what business is it of the Public Security Investigation Agency to pry into the affairs of groups that seek to improve what many observers see as the second-class position of women in Japan, or even of those opposed to an increase in the consumption tax?

It is less surprising, but no less a matter of concern, that the agency apparently also included on its scrutiny list groups that are against official encouragement of wider use of the Hinomaru national flag and “Kimigayo” anthem. This not only suggests Japan’s wartime past, it also reflects the height of the East-West Cold War, when spying on the “enemy within” carried an air of adventure, no matter how disreputable the profession was known to be. It helps to explain the rationale behind the agency’s surveillance instructions that its official duties are spelled out in the Antisubversive Activities Prevention Law, which dates all the way back to 1952.

The year in which that legislation was passed by the Diet was the last year of the postwar Allied Occupation and also the height of the Korean War. The law charges the agency with responsibility for conducting investigations of groups known to have engaged in violent subversive activities in the past and suspected to be likely to do so again. A Public Security Investigation Agency official refused to confirm or deny the document’s authenticity. At the same time, however, he defended in 1996 the instructions and the list of potentially “dangerous” organizations therein on the dubious grounds that the groups may have been influenced by other organizations already under investigation.

That may be the reasoning behind the reported notification to the agency’s Tokyo headquarters by the bureau responsible for the greater Osaka area that it was ready to falsely link investigations of private citizens’ groups to its ongoing surveillance of the Japan Communist Party, if the citizens’ groups raise objections. No wonder that members of some of the organizations that apparently have been spied on — it is difficult to find other words — as well as a number of legal experts are accusing the agency of abuse of power. The charge carries particular weight at a time when the reputation of the nation’s police forces is in tatters as the result of a major series of scandals and coverups.

It is even more relevant, however, to the controversial bill for controlling the activities of the Aum Shinrikyo cult now being deliberated in the Upper House of the Diet after earlier passage by the Lower House. Despite the insistence of the bill’s framers that the proposed law is aimed directly at the cult, its wording refrains from specifically mentioning Aum Shinrikyo by name. Concern about the possible abuse of citizens’ basic human rights under the new law can only be heightened by the realization that the Public Security Investigation Agency would take the lead in enforcing it.

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