Since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “anti-conspiracy” bill entered the upper house of parliament in early April, thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets in protest. Demonstrations against the bill actually started in December, when Abe’s plan became known to the public, but their intensity has grown in recent weeks. As the ruling coalition is pushing to pass the bill before the end of the legislative session on June 18, hundreds of people are staging daily demonstrations in front of the government offices to demand lawmakers scrap the bill, which lies at the intersection of Japan’s struggles.
“This bill cuts across all issues because our lives depend on our right to resist,” said Keiko Makimoto, a retired elementary school teacher, who has been participating in the anti-nuclear demonstrations in front of the government offices nearly every week since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. “I’m here today so that I can keep fighting everyday.”
While Abe says the bill is tailored to combat terrorism and organized crime ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, the scope of the proposed legislation is so broadly defined that it could give law enforcement agencies the ability to target activists and ordinary citizens they suspect of “preparing to commit a crime.”
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In a recent interview with Kyodo News, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden sounded the alarm about the bill and its “normalization of surveillance culture” in Japanese society. “No one sees a clear basis for why this bill is necessary,” Snowden told the interviewer, explaining that the types of “terrorism” crimes the bill purports to target are already against the law. “This is the beginning of a new wave of mass surveillance in Japan.”
A U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy sent a letter to Abe in mid-May, warning that — in addition to the bill’s potential impact on privacy and freedom of expression — the “fast-tracking” of the legislation could “unduly limit broader public debate” on the issue. The Abe administration dismissed the United Nation’s concerns — backed by Amnesty International, Greenpeace and other international organizations — calling the letter “clearly inappropriate.”
While the bill’s broader implications on privacy and mass surveillance have garnered international attention, the people on the ground carry a sense of urgency given that the bill could drastically change their organizing realities. More than 4,000 people rallied at the Hibiya Outdoor Theater in Tokyo last Wednesday, where the venue reached capacity before the rally even began. “If this bill passes, all of us out here will be fair game,” said Hirokuni Ozawa, a 51-year-old musician, who was at the demonstration. “It will affect every single person in this country, even people who think this has nothing to do with them.”
From students, labor organizers, environmental activists and advocates of LGBT rights to ordinary citizens, the rally brought together people from various sectors of society, uniting them in a struggle to defend their voices. At the same time, however, another issue was on their minds: The fear that Japan, once again, is edging its way towards war.
Since taking office in 2012, Abe has pushed a far-right campaign to revise the pacifist constitution that has prevented the country from rebuilding its military in the aftermath of World War II. In July’s upper house election, his party secured the supermajority needed to put the constitutional reform to a national referendum and is working on a draft amendment to present to the public by the end of this year.
According to 39-year-old human rights activist Rie Onodera, the anti-conspiracy bill could silence those who oppose Japan’s remilitarization. “We’ve been able to keep our constitution for all these years after the war because generations before us fought to protect it,” Onodera explained. “Without resistance, our country could drag us into war all over again.”
When the Abe administration, in 2015, pushed a set of security bills allowing troops to engage in overseas combat for the first time since World War II, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators rallied in front of the parliament in one of the largest demonstrations in the country’s recent history. But under the new legislation, such acts of dissent — even in their planning stages — could become targets for law enforcement.
The anti-conspiracy bill has an eerie prewar precedent that makes the possibility of war all the more palpable. In 1925, the Japanese government — in the midst of its colonial expansion across Asia — enacted the Public Security Preservation Law, a sweeping measure that set up a special police force, known as “Tokko,” to suppress public dissent. According to British historian Francis Pike, the government monitored and arrested nearly 60,000 people between 1933 and 1936, many of whom interrogated, jailed and sometimes tortured for “dangerous thoughts.” In 1941, Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō told ministers at the Imperial Conference: “We have strengthened our control over those who are anti-war and anti-military, such as communists, rebellious Koreans and certain religious teachers … in some cases we might have to subject some of them to preventive arrest.” The law was only repealed at the end of the war.
“My mother, who lived through the war as a young woman, would always tell me how everyone in her neighborhood was afraid to speak about war because of informants and the ‘thought police,'” said Toshie Ichinoki, a 66-year-old woman, who was out protesting in front of the government offices last week. “We can’t forget that our country was a surveillance society not too long ago.”
In fact, for those fighting on the frontlines against the revival of Japanese militarism, the future is already here. The same day the anti-conspiracy bill entered parliament for debate, three people were detained by riot police and US security guards in Okinawa, where land and water protectors have been staging demonstrations against the presence of US military bases on indigenous lands.
In November 2015, police raided the office of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, an anti-base organization that has been active in the peaceful demonstrations, and arrested its chairman Hiroji Yamashiro and three other activists for allegedly disrupting the base construction in Henoko. For over five months, Yamashiro was detained by law enforcement without bail and released only after the people’s campaign for his release sparked international outcry. “It’s as if the government is testing out the anti-conspiracy bill on demonstrators in Okinawa,” Yamashiro told the crowd at a recent rally. “What’s happening in Henoko is what the bill looks like when it’s actualized.”
As Japan and the United States strengthen military ties amid growing tensions in the Asia Pacific, remilitarization remains a top priority for Abe, who hopes to recast Japan as an “equal partner” to the United States. That means supporting the US military not only in suppressing anti-base demonstrators in Okinawa, but also its operations abroad. “For my generation of people, we grew up with the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq — both of which Japan has been complicit in,” Onodera said. “A constitutional amendment would allow our country to play a more active role in America’s wars ahead.”
While Japan has yet to deploy troops to engage in direct combat in places like Iraq and Syria, Japan has already joined America on another battlefront. In October 2010, leaked files revealed the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department systematically surveilled some 72,000 Muslim residents and foreign nationals in Tokyo under a program chillingly similar to the one deployed by the New York City Police Department. The 114 documents show that since 2008, Japanese police monitored mosques, schools, restaurants, halal shops and “Islam-related” organizations that were defined so broadly as to include Doctors Without Borders and UNESCO. Human rights attorneys say the Japanese police likely shared information collected under the program with the United States. One of the files, titled “Questions from the FBI,” lists interview questions regarding the suspect’s relation to terrorist plots in the United States.
A Moroccan man, who has lived in Tokyo for more than 20 years, told the Japan Times that he was detained and interrogated in a police holding cell for 10 days after failing to renew his visa in 2007 (a “common error” typically dismissed with no more than a small fine), then transferred to an immigration detention center where he spent another 20 days. After his release, the man, who worked as a chauffeur for the Iraqi embassy, said he received repeated phone calls from the police, pressuring him to spy on his coworkers at his workplace.
A group of 17 Muslim plaintiffs and a team of lawyers filed suit in 2011 against Japan’s police agencies for violating their fundamental rights to privacy and religious freedom under the constitution. But in May 2016, Japan’s highest court declined to hear the case after two appeals, affirming the lower court’s decision to uphold suspicionless surveillance as “necessary and inevitable” in the face of global terrorism.
Although the scope of the police’s current operations still remain in the dark, Japan’s support for the “war on terror” and its collaboration with US law enforcement agencies is no secret. In February 2014, Japan and the United States signed the Agreement on Preventing and Combating Serious Crime, a bilateral accord that allows information sharing between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies “in efforts to combat terrorism and transnational crime.” Later that year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Public Security Bureau, explicit in their bid to join the global “anti-terror” campaign, publicly held a joint training session with the FBI.
Changho Kim — one of the attorneys in the case, who recently co-authored a book with Snowden on surveillance in Japan — said in an interview last year that terrorist attacks are often used to rally public support for wholesale government surveillance. “The people’s fear [of terrorism] gives the government justification to take away our rights,” he said. “I just hope no major terrorist incidents happen in Japan.”
While numbers vary among polls, the majority of respondents say there hasn’t been enough debate in regards to the bill. However, according to Asahi newspaper, the percentage of those in support of the bill was markedly higher when the word “terrorist crime” was mentioned in the question. “I think many people think this bill doesn’t apply to them because they aren’t terrorists,” said Naoko Kawakami, a 70-year-old woman who has been coming to the demonstrations for nearly a month. “The thing is, any of us could be considered a ‘terrorist.'”
As world leaders take the attacks in Manchester and London as an opportunity to renew their pledge to bolster so-called counter-terrorism measures, many Japanese people are demanding their country take a different direction, which begins by opposing the anti-conspiracy bill. “We need a new anti-terrorism measure, one where we embrace diversity and challenge the very structures that create terrorism,” Greenpeace Japan executive director Yuko Yoneda told protesters at the rally last week. “Getting rid of discrimination, poverty and oppression, isn’t that the way to stop terrorism?” The crowd erupted in applause.