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When visiting Tokyo last week for the launch of the Japanese edition of The Life and Death of Democracy, it was pure coincidence, or sweet and sour serendipity, that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe steamrolled through parliament a controversial bill to set stricter penalties for intelligence breaches. Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called public demonstrations against the secrecy bill ‘acts of terrorism’. The opposition parties cried foul, and (mostly small) demonstrations followed. Public support for the Abe government has since dipped, with many citizens (more than 70%) expressing concerns that the bill wasn’t properly debated, or that the hand of the state was reaching too deeply into citizens’ daily lives.
The new law is a warning to the whole democratic world about where crackdowns on freedom of information are leading. The law might well serve as some future sultan’s delight, yet local supporters of the secrecy bill insisted that it will make Japan a more ‘normal’ country. By this they meant that future governments could better wield sovereign power, for instance in possible future military confrontations with the People’s Republic of China. Buried in their rhetoric are the designs of the Abe government to forge a much tighter military alliance with the United States. A few days before I arrived in Japan, Abe won parliamentary approval for the creation of an American-style National Security Council. More than a few Japanese journalists and academics told me that the next step of the Abe government will be the attempted amendment, or outright scrapping, of Article 9 of the constitution, the provision that confirms that ‘the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation’.
Public protests against the new law have been small, and on at least one occasion, before the parliament, docile demonstrators complied with police orders to lower their banners and placards. For a variety of historical reasons, deference to state power runs deep in Japan. It therefore remains to be seen whether its citizens and their representatives have the guts to kick up a fuss and vigorously resist the implementation of a law which grants government agencies sweeping new powers to classify secrets and toughens penalties for officials who leak them. Striking is the fact that the secrecy law makes no provision for any independent oversight of the blackout process. Astonishing is the capaciously vague definition of what information should be kept secret. Equally worrying are the more or less unlimited discretionary powers granted to heads of government agencies, and the deeply punitive provisions of the new law. Those found guilty of leaking secrets will face up to 10 years in prison, much longer than under existing laws. Thanks to the combined forces of a power-hungry Abe government, the Chinese Communist Party and the NSA, we could say, Japanese democracy has just suffered a serious body blow.
In the context of ‘the largest ever threat to democracy in postwar Japan’ (the words of a group of academic petitioners, among them two Nobel Prize winners), the lunch-time launch of The Life and Death of Democracy at the Japan National Press Club raised a few eyebrows. Yes, it was a graciously formal affair. There were speeches and interviews, the giving of gifts and amusing photo shoots, several beneath memorable portraits of Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger and other high-and-mighty previous guests. There was an overall air of stiff civility, but several moments of serious fun triggered robust discussion about the meaning of ‘monitory democracy’, a term that’s easily understandable but hard to translate into Japanese. Some journalists, especially those who benefit from the reigning kisha kirabu system of embedded journalism, looked sceptical. Yet several questioners wondered openly why there is so little public scrutiny of power in Japan. With the new secrecy law now a reality, one brave journalist asked why greater whistle blowing and leaked information might still be positive news for Japan. My reply was straightforward: not only would it satisfy the democratic principles bound up with the public chastening of power. It would as well help publicise the need for urgent policy solutions to such problems as the systematic discrimination against women, deepening social inequality, a shrinking middle class, declining population and a ‘silver’ society that marginalises millions of elderly citizens. In future, I explained, more monitory democracy could also prevent the kind of political folly and hubris that worsened the Fukushima catastrophe, whose disabling environmental and social effects will not be overcome, certainly not in my lifetime.
Viewers wishing to follow the line-by-line interpreted press conference will find it posted below. Readers may find interesting the English-language version of the preface to the two-volume book, which was translated with great skill and patience by Masahiko Morimoto. An interview about the subject of secrecy and the future of monitory democracy, conducted by Asahi Shimbun on December 10th, will be posted shortly.