Since last year, moves by the government to sway public opinion in favor of its policies have come to the fore one after another. On June 6, the Japan Communist Party revealed that the Ground Self-Defense Force’s intelligence security unit had gathered information on the activities of organizations and individuals that opposed deployment of SDF troops in Iraq. Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma admitted that the GSDF had conducted such surveillance, although he refused to provide details.

The scope of the surveillance was stunning, covering citizens’ groups, labor unions, political parties, religious organizations and reporters. As many as 289 organizations and individuals in 41 prefectures were targeted.

Though its main mission is to protect the Japanese people, the GSDF kept some citizens under surveillance — as if they were potential enemies — just because they opposed SDF deployment in Iraq.

Like the police, the GSDF must remain politically neutral. It should refrain from conducting surveillance on citizens and exerting silent pressure on those linked to antigovernment speeches and activities. The surveillance reminds me of the military police that suppressed freedom of speech and thought during the war.

Hideki Tojo, who was prime minister when Japan started the war with the United States and Britain, was a former military police officer. Making maximum use of the military police, Tojo allegedly suppressed antiwar views of politicians and commentators.

It is noteworthy that major newspapers gave different treatment to news of the GSDF surveillance. The Asahi Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun put it on the front page and played it up on the domestic page, while the Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun treated it so casual as to virtually ignore it. This apparently reflects the diverse views regarding SDF deployment in Iraq.

Since the surveillance represented “indirect censorship” of media, as the Japan Pen Club said in its protest statement, all media should have reported the news as a serious issue.

Meanwhile, the government is blatantly trying to shape public opinion in its favor. In May, the government set up a private advisory panel of intellectuals to consider whether it is possible for Japan to exercise the right of “collective self-defense” under the Constitution. Of the 13 members appointed, 12 had reportedly said in the past that there would be no constitutional problems in exercising this right. Thus the panel’s opinion is a foregone conclusion.

In 1999, the government established guidelines for creating official advisory panels amid criticism that such panels only represented the interests of government ministries. The guidelines stipulated that a panel’s composition must ensure that its opinions are fair and balanced, that former ministry officials, older people and those who belonged to existing advisory panels be excluded from a new panel, and that efforts be made to increase the proportion of female members on a panel to 30 percent.

There are no such rules for private advisory panels such as the one on the right of collective self-defense. If there were, the panel would be considered unbalanced as it includes no female members and comprises mostly people who support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views on changing the interpretation of the Constitution to the the extent that it would have the effect of a revision.

In 1954, the government of the Liberal Democratic Party changed the interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9, making it possible for Japan to establish the SDF. The government also resorted to similar tactics to deploy SDF troops in Cambodia and Iraq.

Changing constitutional interpretations yet again to exercise the right of collective self-defense would effectively nullify Article 9.

Since the national referendum law was enacted in May, enabling the public to express their views on a constitutional amendment, the logical course of action for the government should be to seek a constitutional revision — after a transition period of three years — that would allow Japan to invoke the right of collective self-defense

The Bush administration, which the administrations of Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, have supported, is mired in the Iraq war and faces declining popularity. With a Democratic Party candidate likely to win the 2008 U.S. presidential election, there is no need for Japan to rush to set up a system conducive to joint military operations with the U.S. armed forces.

Last December a scandal involving “town meetings” launched by the Koizumi administration surfaced. It was disclosed that the government had planted questions for people to ask in order to sway public opinion. A government investigation panel, which surveyed 174 town meetings from 2001 to 2006, disclosed that:

* Participants were asked to pose specific questions at 105 sessions and at 15 other sessions, and participants were recruited to attend 71 sessions.

* Sixty-five participants were paid 5,000 yen each to ask questions.

Ironically, Washington has criticized Tokyo’s practice of using advisory panels. On the basis of the bilateral regulatory reform and competitive policy initiative, the U.S. last December made an eight-point demand to Japan, including that the government recruit advisory panel members from the public as much as possible and maximize opportunities for panel participation by all interested parties. The government ignores this demand with respect to the new advisory panel on the right of collective self-defense.

Since the days of Koizumi’s rule, the Japanese government has sought a stronger defense alliance with the U.S. as the centerpiece of its policy. However, top policymakers apparently do not know the ABCs of democracy. Such people would hardly be respected by their counterparts in Washington and would seem able to content themselves with Japan being relegated to the role of a subcontractor for U.S. forces.

Expanding the sphere of the right of self-defense could risk Japan’s reverting back to military rule. Japan should learn the basics of U.S. democracy, including transparency in policymaking, before seeking stronger bilateral security ties.

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