Street performances are fun for many people and give character to streets and communities such as Tokyo’s Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara and Kichijoji areas. But now such activities may be restricted or banned due to a revision of the Tokyo metropolitan by-law for “the building of safe and secure communities,” which took effect April 1.

The revised by-law not only threatens to make Tokyo’s busy and crowded areas colorless, uniform and drab but also appears to infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Metropolitan Police Department could use the revised by-law to crush people’s attempts to publicize their cause, be it human rights, animal rights or job protests.

The original by-law was enacted in June 2003 to “promote autonomous activities by metropolitan residents and others to prevent crimes” by having residents, business operators, volunteers and municipal governments cooperate with the metropolitan government and the police.

The by-law gave rise to local citizen patrols and the installment of crime-prevention cameras at various places including condominiums, parks, financial institutions and convenience stores. Residents were required to contact the police and take other measures as necessary when they came across school children in danger.

On Feb. 18, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara submitted a revision bill to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The revision says that in “crowded areas,” those who own or manage stores, parking lots and other facilities, and land owners, local residents, volunteers and visitors are called upon to take necessary measures to ensure safety and security in accordance of guidelines laid down by the governor and the Public Safety Commission.

The metropolitan government and the police are to give related “information” and advice to those parties concerned and take other “necessary measures.” The problem is that “necessary measures” has been left undefined, creating room for the metropolitan government and the police to take arbitrary actions.

A document titled “Thoughts on ensuring safety and security in crowded areas,” made public Feb. 9, one day before the announcement of the revision content, details what will happen after the revision goes into effect. Its content is believed to be reflected in the guidelines to be drawn up by the governor and the Public Safety Commission.

It says that business operators, local residents, volunteers, municipalities, the police and other administrative organizations will form associations. They will carry out wide-ranging activities — some of which are quite intrusive — including conducting neighborhood patrols, removing illegally parked bicycles, cleaning roads and “enlightening” on “preventing activities that disturb the public order of towns, such as performances on streets and in pedestrian paradises (streets closed off to traffic), which cause great trouble to people,” preventing the illegal employment of foreigners and “prohibiting the disposal of garbage and cigarette butts, and smoking while walking.” In a repetitious manner, the document notes that visitors to busy areas must “refrain from carrying out activities that disturb the public order of towns, such as performances on streets and in pedestrian paradises, which cause great trouble to people” and “observe the rules prohibiting throwing away garbage and cigarette butts” as well as understand the associations’ activities.

No clear definition is given to “activities that disturb the public order of towns,” and the by-law does not provide for punishment. A metropolitan official told the assembly that he believes that the revision was not designed to control the actions of individuals. Nonetheless, police intervention to stop street performances and other activities cannot be ruled out.

A blue-ribbon committee also issued a report on Feb. 9 calling for a revision of the by-law, expressing a fear that crime will increase because of social conditions caused by the global recession. It went on to cite the indiscriminate killings that took place in Akihabara and Hachioji in June and July 2008, respectively, even though these crimes could not have been prevented by the measures contained in the revision.

In view of the fact that the number of criminal offenses in Tokyo reported by the police has decreased for six consecutive years since 2003, the motive behind the revision appears to be a political one aimed more at controlling the activities of citizens than on their safety. This makes the revision a clear attack on our freedoms.

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