Japan’s secrets bill turns journalists into terrorists



Shinzo Abe owes Xi Jinping a debt of gratitude.

The buzz in Japanese cyberspace is that Chinese President Xi is wagging the dog by declaring a controversial “air-defense identification zone” across the East China Sea. The move has drastically ramped up tensions with Japan and the United States, both of which have blatantly disregarded Beijing’s unilateral edict. According to one prevailing theory, Xi is whipping up an international storm to change the subject domestically away from income inequality, official corruption and China’s blackening skies.

The leader benefiting most from the controversy, though, may be Japan’s Abe. With his own populace furious over China’s unilateral decree, the prime minister is seizing the opportunity to rush a chilling official-secrets bill into law.

The entire process has echoes of George Orwell. If enacted, the secrecy law would allow government ministries to declare just about anything they want classified. It now even appears that trying to cajole information from someone privy to a state secret could warrant jail time. In other words, if I grab a beer with a bureaucrat and ask the wrong question, could I end up in handcuffs? Ambiguity reigns.

Last week, the No. 2 official in Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, Shigeru Ishiba, issued a dark warning to anyone like me who might dare to question the bill. In a Nov. 29 blog post, the LDP secretary-general likened any such challenge to “an act of terrorism.” He’s since stood by his ominous statement.

No one would be surprised to see Syria or Cuba adopting a vaguely written law that could easily result in long jail terms for reporters and whistle-blowers. But a Group of Seven democracy?

“How can the government respond to growing demands for transparency from a public outraged by the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident if it enacts a law that gives it a free hand to classify any information considered too sensitive as a ‘state secret’?” Reporters Without Borders asked in a Nov. 27 statement.

Essentially, the group argued, Japan “is making investigative journalism illegal, and is trampling on the fundamental principles of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public interest.”

“Welcome to the land of the setting sun. Let’s see how much darker it will get,” Tokyo-based investigative reporter Jake Adelstein wrote in a Nov. 30 Japan Times op-ed. As Adelstein pointed out, the secrecy bill bears a resemblance to Japan’s pre-World War II Peace Preservation Law, which gave the government wide latitude to arrest and jail individuals who were out of step with its policies.

Parts of the bill also echo the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney power grab that was the Patriot Act.

Japan’s press-freedom ranking is already in free fall. In 2013, its standing dropped 31 places from 2012 to a new low of 53rd out of 179 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders. Japan now trails South Africa and the Comoro Islands off Mozambique. The main culprit behind this year’s drop was weak reporting on radiation risks at Fukushima — a problem that’s sure to get even worse as incentives for media self-censorship increase. If you think the powerful bureaucrats who really run Japan are too opaque with their fiefdoms and secret handshakes now, just wait.

What’s odd, and should greatly worry Japan’s 126 million people, is the urgency behind Abe’s push to pass the secrets bill. The prime minister hasn’t implemented a single structural reform in almost 12 months in office. Not one. He’s taken no important steps to deregulate, shake up or remake an overmanaged economy. But this particular legislation apparently needs to be passed, like, yesterday. If only Abe would put one-tenth this much energy into tweaking tax policies or empowering Japanese women.

“What’s driving this so soon after an election when it was barely mentioned is a mystery,” says legal scholar Colin Jones of Doshisha Law School in Kyoto.

The bill dovetails with the Nov. 27 creation of a U.S.-style national security council in Tokyo. In the post-Edward Snowden world, the U.S. is more paranoid than ever about sharing sensitive information. Proponents say the secrecy law is needed to ensure Japan remains a key link in the global intelligence-sharing chain. But Abe’s power grab goes too far.

The Japanese public supports Abe’s bid to defeat deflation and stand up to China, but it’s not with him on this issue. A new Asahi newspaper poll shows his public support has dropped below 50 percent thanks to the secrecy bill. Abe hopes to get this law passed by Dec. 6, and he appears to have the votes in the Diet to do so. It’s up to the terrorists — sorry, concerned members of the public to speak out if they want to stop him.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Contact him by email: wpesek@bloomberg.net.

  • A Chinese threat gives the PM the pretense he needs in order to change the constitution. Given that constitutionalism is context-dropping dogma, that is a good thing, but the question is that contemporary (representative) democracy has the ethical foundations of a ‘gang bang’, so that ‘progress’ comes at considerable risk to a disempowered electorate. One of course needs to acknowledge that Abe’s hands are unreasonably tied by dogmatic provisions of constitutionalism; but that only highlights the problems with representative democracy; which made the threat posed by Abe possible. The revolution is really personal.

    • Joshua Lundquist

      i want to expand this comment into a diagram / infographic for my friends who dont have the time to care

  • Karl A Johnson

    Given the quality of what passes for “journalism” these days, that might not be such a bad thing.

  • Michael

    This is an example of what ANY government will do when there is a human extinction is on the horizon. Journalism is one of the first to get shutdown.

  • Toolonggone

    So Abe regime is implementing the bills to make Japan ‘normal’ to international standard through an undemocratic legislation process, since they got infected by Snowden paranoid?

  • Nico van der Stok

    First the pacifism constitution, now the state
    secrets bill, and if Shigeru Ishiba has any say in it, next up is
    probably an anti-demo bill. These bills will give Japan the power to
    cover up nuclear incidents, hide inconvenient truths and
    seriously impact Human Rights and Freedom of Speech. With an unclear
    definition of state secrets, this bill will likely not only be used for
    protecting their (immoral) secrets, but also will be widely used against
    anyone who speaks badly of the government, as is the case in several
    other Asian countries. LDP (Abe’s leading party) wants to turn Japan
    into another North Korea where the people are controlled by fear, and
    people will be forced to fight wars for their country against their
    will, and insubordination will dealt with as a crime against the
    country. While there are still values left, the Japanese and the
    international community should really make a stand, before we have
    another dictatorial regime on our hands. The fact that this bill could
    pass shows there is a huge gap between democracy, human rights and the
    current Diet.