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Is Abe securing or threatening Japan’s peace and democracy?

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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference after close of regular parliament session at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 19 June 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai).

In Brief

Despite his involvement in a series of political scandals, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains unscathed. And with a firm grip on power, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has shifted its focus away from economic reform towards conservatives’ long-cherished goal of constitutional revision to allow for the use of military force abroad while increasing executive power at the expense of civil rights at home.


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Celebrating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s post-war constitution on 3 May, Abe took it upon himself to revise the document. To temper public opposition against changing the war-renouncing Article 9, the LDP has in recent parliamentary deliberations pledged to dispense a host of new social benefits. Abe has also used recurring North Korean missile tests and simmering maritime disputes to create a sense of urgency and prompt public acceptance of constitutional revision before 2020. And yet, despite or precisely because of heightened military tensions, the public remains divided. Many fear for Japan’s post-war pacifist legacy and democracy.

But as constitutional revision remains a long-term objective, the new political order is already taking shape through the gradual introduction of new national security legislation. Three tactical moves help the Abe administration overcome opposition.

First, references to abstract terrorist threats serve to mobilise public support. On 15 June, the Diet passed a controversial anti-conspiracy bill by a two-thirds majority of the LDP/Komeito ruling coalition. Scheduled for enactment in July, it grants government agencies broad discretionary powers for public surveillance. Attempts to introduce similar bills on the grounds that they were required to ratify the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime failed three times in the past. This time, the Abe administration employed the spectre of unspecified terrorist threats against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as additional leverage for overcoming resistance.

The enhancement of social controls has been in the making for some time. Taking advantage of the Global War on Terror, previous administrations had already introduced new military security and policing measures in the early 2000s and especially in the run-up to the 2008 G8 summit in Japan. The National Police Agency and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police created new branches. Tasked with blanket surveillance and mass profiling, they mainly targeted Japan’s Muslim community.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed several lawsuits that were filed after information about the program had leaked to the public. The judges deemed the intrusive measures ‘necessary and unavoidable’. Meanwhile the media, if paying attention at all, framed the case as a technical problem of data leakage. In hindsight, the Muslim surveillance program was a prelude to the new anti-conspiracy bill.

Against the backdrop of Japan’s 1925 Public Security Preservation Law, which functioned as the totalitarian wartime regime’s main instrument of repression, public concern remains high. The bill’s deliberation in the Diet attracted criticism not only from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, but also from the UN Special Rapporteurs on the protection of the rights to freedom of expression, and on the rights to privacy, respectively. The latter provoked a strong rebuttal from the Abe administration, denouncing his warnings as ‘clearly inappropriate’.

Second, critical terms defining the scope of application of the newly proposed laws remain vague. The initial proposal for the anti-conspiracy bill, formally called ‘the law regulating preparing for terrorism and other organized crimes’, covered no less than 676 crimes. The current bill’s reduced catalogue still lists 277. Yet in Diet deliberations, justice minister Katsutoshi Kaneda remained evasive when asked what counts as ‘preparing’ a crime and who would eventually be targeted by the new measures.

This pattern is also apparent in a 2013 law that punishes officials and journalists for publicising rather loosely defined government-designated ‘state secrets’. As a result, civil society actors and the media are increasingly shying away from staging anti-government protests, such as against military bases on Okinawa, and are becoming even more reluctant to investigate state practice.

Because these ambiguities leave the laws’ implications unclear, public opinion remains divided and opposition diluted. At the same time, vague definitions create room for the future expansion of intrusive measures through official interpretation. In the wake of the 2013 protests against new security laws, then LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba likened demonstrations to ‘acts of terrorism’.

Third, the ability of Japan’s judiciary to restrain executive power remains questionable. While the Supreme Court has long ruled in favour of the conservative governing elite, Abe has further strengthened the executive’s influence.

Traditionally up to 4 of the 15 Supreme Court judges were appointed upon recommendation from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. But in the latest round of appointments, the government simply ignored the Bar Association. This has been understood as a move to restrain the left-leaning body and punish its members for their fierce opposition against the new security bills. Lawyers associated with the Bar Association now fear that their organisation will give up its opposition in return for regaining the prerogative.

Abe made a similar move to influence debates on constitutional revision when he appointed an advocate for collective self-defence as head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in 2013. In this way, he overturned the Bureau’s long-standing practice of interpreting Article 9 narrowly, and generated momentum for Japan’s participation in military operations alongside US forces overseas.

Resistance against change in Japan’s national security legislation has often been dismissed as an outflow of leftist ideology. Yet recent developments show that constitutional revision is about far more than just bringing Article 9 in line with the realities of Japan’s military posture and security environment. It is about redefining state–society relations.

Sebastian Maslow is Research Fellow at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, Kobe University.

Christian Wirth is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

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