Japan’s lower house passes controversial secrecy law bill

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Japan’s ruling bloc passed a controversial bill in the lower house Nov. 26 to toughen penalties for leakers of state secrets, in what the government views as a crucial step toward Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of enhancing the country’s ability to face security challenges in Asia.

Passage of the bill in the House of Representatives put the ruling bloc on course to enact the law before the current Diet session ends Dec. 6. But it could still face an uphill battle in the House of Councillors as some opposition lawmakers are calling for more deliberations.

“We’re aware that worries and concerns remain among the public,” Abe told reporters after the vote. Saying the bill is designed “to protect the safety of the people,” he added, “We’ll strive to dispel (such worries and concerns) through deliberations in the upper house.”

Seen as a prerequisite for Japan to share sensitive information with foreign countries, the envisaged law will impose a prison sentence of up to 10 years on leakers of “special secrets,” or information concerning diplomacy, defense, counterterrorism or espionage.

Opposition lawmakers and experts have voiced concern that tighter state control of information will infringe on the public’s right to know and freedom of the press.

The biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan criticized the ruling bloc, saying it pushed the bill through without thorough deliberations.

“It (the bill) will spell serious trouble for Japan’s democracy,” DPJ Secretary General Akihiro Ohata told reporters.

The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner the New Komeito party forced the bill to a vote in a special committee in the lower house earlier in the day and subsequently had it approved by the lower house, with some opposition lawmakers refusing to vote or walking away in protest.

Together with the planned establishment of a U.S.-style National Security Council, the secrecy law is being touted as one of the pillars of Abe’s efforts to bolster the country’s defenses against mounting security threats from an assertive China at sea and North Korea’s missile and nuclear development.

“Special secrets” will remain classified for up to 60 years after the ruling bloc made minor changes to the government’s original plan to set the maximum length at 30 years, extendable upon Cabinet approval.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed confidence before the vote that the government had gained enough support, as the ruling bloc, controlling both houses of parliament, engaged in talks with opposition parties seeking changes to the bill.

“I don’t see (the ruling bloc) railroading it,” the top government spokesman said.

After haggling over details with the opposition Japan Restoration Party and Your Party, the ruling bloc agreed the prime minister will be given the authority to check the legitimacy of labeling certain information as special secrets, and the government will have to “consider” an option to set up an independent monitoring body.

There are, however, exceptions to the rule, and the list of seven items kept from the public even after 60 years includes details about weapons, the number and capacity of aircraft, defense codes, and Japan’s negotiations with foreign governments.

Critics of the bill, which has reminded some of Japan’s past wartime secrecy, have argued there are no clear rules on what constitutes a special secret under the envisaged law, and the government can use the current rough definition to keep information from the public at its own discretion.

In the lower house, information about nuclear power plants came into focus but Masako Mori, state minister in charge of the bill, said a security plan at a nuclear power plant could be labeled as a special secret, but not details about the spread of radioactive substances.

Still, participants from Fukushima Prefecture expressed opposition to the bill at the Nov. 25  lower house public hearing, citing fears that information about the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants will be withheld if the new law comes into force.

Abe told the Diet earlier that Japan has over 400,000 state secrets, although many of them are satellite photos. Under the proposed law, most of the secrets could be redefined as special secrets.

Japan has been particularly concerned about threats posed by China, which has been aggressively pushing its claim over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

On Nov. 23, China abruptly announced a controversial air defense identification zone over the uninhabited islands, requiring foreign aircraft to identify themselves.

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