Recent legislation and other government moves are enough to cause anxiety that Japan may be inching toward an Orwellian society. The state secrets law, which will severely limit citizens’ access to government information and impose heavy punishments on bureaucrats and other people who leak or obtain designated government secrets, will take effect by yearend.

The Justice Ministry has proposed greatly expanding the scope of investigative authorities’ interception of electronic communications in criminal investigations.

The government is also eager to enact a law to introduce the crime of conspiracy under which people would be punished for joining others in plotting a crime even if the crime has not been carried out and even if no concrete preparations have been made to commit the act.

Lawmakers and citizens need to keep watch to ensure that people’s civil and political rights, especially the freedoms of thought, conscience, speech, expression and assembly, are not infringed upon by the government.

In a joint statement issued after a May 1 meeting in London between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his British counterpart, David Cameron, Japan and the U.K. agreed to “lead by example in the effective implementation of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Standards.” The FATF, comprising mainly member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has repeatedly called on Japan to introduce punitive provisions for acts of conspiracy as a means of combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the international financial system.

Japan signed the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000, and the government says that enactment of a bill defining conspiracy as a crime is a prerequisite for ratifying the convention. So far it has submitted a bill three times to the Diet to introduce the crime of conspiracy as a revision to the law on penalties for organized crimes. Each time the bill was quashed due to strong resistance from opposition parties and the public.

It has been reported that after the state secrets law was enacted in December, calls for creating the crime of conspiracy in the penal code system gained momentum within the Abe administration, as proponents argued that Japan has the responsibility to do so as a member of the international community to fight international terrorism. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito are said to be cautious for fear that such moves so soon after the enactment of the state secrets law could invite strong criticism that the crime of conspiracy will violate people’s basic civil and political rights.

While an immediate move to introduce the crime of conspiracy appears unlikely, the administration appears to be calculating the best time to do so. The government may push for the move by citing the need to beef up security as the nation prepares to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

According to earlier bills submitted to the Diet, people could be punished if they conspired with others to commit any of the more than 600 categories of crimes that carry punishment of at least four years in jail. In previous attempts, this wide scope of application was strongly criticized. The government may choose to narrow the scope of offenses to which the crime of conspiracy applies, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and firearms trade, in order to soften public opposition.

It must not be forgotten that the core concept of the legal revision will remain the same — punishing people if they join others only to plot a crime — and that it is a major departure from the current principle that arrests can be made only when a crime is actually committed or attempted.

Some members of civic groups and experts point out that the legal threshold on what constitutes plotting crimes is unclear. Surveillance activities may come to form a larger part of police and public prosecutors’ criminal investigations if they are empowered to crack down on crimes being planned.

In addition to the move toward the creation of the crime of conspiracy, the Justice Ministry on April 30 proposed to a special panel of the Legislative Council, an advisory body for the justice minister, that the types of crimes in which investigators may intercept communications such as phone calls and email be expanded from four — drug crimes, gun crimes, group smuggling and organized murders — to 14, including murder, battery and assault, confinement, burglary, fraud, arson, use of explosives, kidnapping and production of child pornography. Coupled with the establishment of the crime of conspiracy, this could increase the danger of investigators wiretapping the conversations and communications of ordinary citizens, rather than just those of criminal organizations.

Ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the police will very likely cite security reasons for collecting a vast amount of information on citizens’ activities, even without specific legal grounds. If, in addition to the state secrets law going into effect, the crime of conspiracy is introduced and the scope of communications interception is expanded, the government and investigative authorities will put large areas of citizens’ activities under surveillance.

Lawmakers, legal experts and citizens are urged to point out the respective problems arising from these moves by the government and what is wrong with the argument for each point.

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