The Japanese government has so far failed to give meaningful reassurances about the way in which the reactionary and potentially dangerous Designated Secrets Act, rammed through the Japanese Diet in December, will operate.

When I joined the British mission in Tokyo as a junior secretary in late 1951 I worked with officers who had personal experience of Japanese spying paranoia in Japan, Korea and Manchuria before the war. Their accounts were chilling.

I recently did some research and wrote a chapter* on the treatment of a number of British subjects in Japan who suffered from the Japanese suspicions toward foreigners in 1940. The Japanese military police (kempeitai) arrested the Reuters correspondent in Tokyo, Melville Cox, in 1940. He died in their custody on July 29, 1940, allegedly by throwing himself out of a window after inhumane treatment or by being thrown out by his captors. I could not find any evidence that he was involved in spying. At most he may have passed on to officials information generally available to members of the press.

A number of British businessmen in Japan including residents of Kobe and vice-consuls in Shimonoseki and Nagasaki were also arrested in 1940 and imprisoned on flimsy evidence and on spurious charges. In those days even the most innocent information was often regarded as secret.

Japan has changed beyond recognition since those days and the kempeitai has long been abolished. Fortunately the Japanese media are generally active in defending freedom of speech, although NHK does not seem to be as objective in its reporting as the BBC and the Japanese authorities seem to be able to limit the circulation of some stories through the kisha club system.

The government has a majority in both houses of the Diet but it cannot muzzle the opposition even if it wanted to. The Diet can accordingly still try to restrain the authorities from misusing the provisions of the act.

The new law is said to have been welcomed by the U.S. government and Western intelligence agencies, which have hitherto tended to regard the government apparatus in Tokyo as a leaky sieve. But they should look closely at the provisions and compare these with the legal position in their home countries.

The Americans have been highly embarrassed by Wikileaks and the secrets apparently passed on by Edward Snowden. Snowden’s leaks according to some intelligence bosses have endangered lives. We cannot know how true this is as it concerns matters that are secret. But U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to put some reins on the snooping conducted by the CIA. The British are keeping as quiet as possible about the work of their agencies while insisting that they act within the law.

We need to protect ourselves against terrorists at home, external threats abroad and international criminal gangs who rob and defraud us. To do this we probably need to accept some limits on our privacy. But the dividing line must be drawn with care and be subject to independent supervision.

One of the fundamental objections to the new Japanese law is that its terms, such as what is a “state secret,” are not defined. Government agencies are left to decide what is or what is not a state secret and no independent body has been set up to monitor this process.

I know from my own experience that government ministers and bureaucrats tend to define most matters as “confidential,” which under the new Japanese law could be defined as “state secrets.” It is possible that anything published that could embarrass the Japanese government or its agents will indeed be classified as a “state secret.”

The British public is protected to a considerable extent against the misuse of classification by Freedom of Information Acts and by rules specifying that most government documents must be released after 30 years (to be reduced to 20 years).

In contrast, Japanese “state secrets” under the new law can be kept hidden from scrutiny for 60 years. By that time interest in the topic will be limited to a few historians.

Categories of information, which, according to the law, could qualify as “secrets,” are defence, diplomacy, “designated dangerous activities” and prevention of terrorism.

These are huge categories. Before the war all sorts of information such as tides, weather and shipping movements were included under “defense” and were to be kept secret. It is improbable that in the light of modern technology such information could be designated secret today, but there are clearly dangers of misuse of this category.

The diplomacy category could be used to prevent any information other than that contained in official releases being made public about negotiations, such as on trade or territorial issues. This could inhibit debate and hide the historical record.

What are to be designated as “dangerous activities”? This is far too vague.

Under the law the Japanese government is supposed, according to a translation I have seen, to “fully take into account” the reporting by journalists “aimed at the people’s right to access information.” Perhaps the meaning of this phrase has been “lost in translation” and it is a typical example of the vagueness inherent in the Japanese language as used by politicians. Even so I do not find this provision in the least reassuring.

The punishments provided in the law for infringements are draconian. A bureaucrat or whistle-blower who gives publicity to “state secrets” is liable to a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The punishment for those, including journalists, who ask questions about “state secrets,” even if they don’t know that they are secrets, is set at up to five years. This rule could be used to inhibit any journalistic enquiry.

No attempt seems to have been made to explain or justify this law to foreign opinion. Perhaps that is due to the fact that it is indefensible in this age.

This law has seriously damaged Japan’s reputation among all liberal minded people in Western countries. It needs early amendments designed to clarify and limit its application.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984. *”The Death of Melville James Cox (1885-1940) in Tokyo on 29 July 1940: Arrests of British Citizens in Japan in 1940 and 1941,” pp. 491-506, “Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits,” Vol. VIII (Global Oriental/Brill 2013).

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