In contrast to several positive developments in part of the region with respect to democracy, rule of law and human rights, Japan is falling back. Despite consistent concerns from the opposition and civil society on the potential impacts on civil rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, the Abe administration is stubbornly pushing for the adoption of the so-called anti-conspiracy bill without seeking consensus in the Diet. The draft legislation is widely criticized for its broad scope, which leaves worrying room for arbitrary use of the legislation against ordinary people.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to share his serious concerns on the bill’s possible negative impacts on human rights. Since the draft law’s definition of an “organized criminal group” is too broad, the U.N. rights expert raised specific concerns in his letter on the potential restrictions on non-governmental organizations, especially on those working in areas of national security.
The draft bill could jeopardize the work of many human rights and environmental NGOs if the authorities use it against NGOs critical of the government in order to surveil, or worse, criminalize their work. Yet among Japanese civil society, many feel that Okinawa, the prefecture encompassing the country’s southernmost islands, is particularly threatened, because environmental and rights groups are energetically fighting against the government’s project to build a new U.S. military base.
Critics fear that a planned new base in Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa Island will lead to environmental destruction and human rights violations as well as the exposure of the islands as a military target. Many Okinawans carry bitter memories of the Battle of Okinawa, during which a quarter of the local population was lost in the last phase of the Pacific War because the islands were forced to serve as the Japan’s final line of defense.
Since the local civil society facilitates protests against the Henoko base construction and demands the maximum possible access to information concerning the military’s activities in order to assess impacts on their rights, the work of Okinawan civil society groups can be arbitrary interpreted as threatening Japan’s national security.
Dozens to hundreds of protesters gather around the Henoko construction site on land and at sea on a daily basis. Among them is Hiroji Yamashiro, the chairperson of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, who has been a longtime leader of non-violent protests. His personal commitments to peace, human rights and environmental protection for the islands have turned him into a symbol of the resistance in Okinawa. Yet at the same time, he has been targeted by the authorities because of this leadership role.
In late 2016, he was arrested on minor charges multiple times in two months. As requests for bail were repeatedly turned down, he was detained for five months under exceptionally restrictive conditions. He was not allowed to meet anyone except lawyers, supposedly due to “the risk of destruction of evidence.” His wife finally managed to see him in detention for the first time after four and a half months, shortly before his release in March.
The retroactive arrests and prolonged detention were condemned by civil society as arbitrary measures to spread a chilling effect and discourage the protest movement. However, many say that the Yamashiro’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.
Under the Abe administration, media freedom has been struggling. Japan ranks 72nd for press freedom among 180 countries, the lowest for a Group of Seven country, representing a dramatic drop from 11th in 2010 at the time of the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. Journalists critically covering the Okinawan issues are often portrayed as “anti-Japan” by influential figures, leading to undermining of the country’s media freedom. Two local newspapers, the Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times, are the most targeted among the Okinawan media. Due to their critical coverage of the Japanese government’s policies on U.S. military facilities, the newspapers and their reporters are constantly attacked by conservative lawmakers and their allies.
One of the notorious examples is the so-called Hyakuta incident. Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling writer and close friend of Abe, was invited to a study session in June 2015 organized by junior politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The attendees included then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Koichi Hagiuda, a special adviser to Abe at that time. Though the study session was to discuss the revision of the Constitution, the participants went further to have a heated debate on how to “punish” media outlets critical of the government. The novelist attacked the two Okinawan newspapers by saying, “The two Okinawan newspapers must be destroyed. I believe if some of the islands in Okinawa [Prefecture] were to be invaded by China, although such a thing should not happen, they will awake from their sleep.” No lawmaker present at the session questioned the remark; many endorsed it. Although this incident sparked outrage within and outside Okinawa, the regression of freedom of expression did not stop.
Last week, another United Nations human rights expert released a report on Japan, sending a serious alert about the country’s bitter reality when it comes to freedom of expression. While the special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, David Kaye, refrained from touching on the draft “anti-conspiracy” bill, he “identified significant worrying signals” that “undermine Japan’s democratic foundations.” In addition to his concerns on the lack of political will to ensure media independence and access to information, Kaye specifically pointed out the situation in Okinawa, saying he found “the availability of space for dissent and access to information for those throughout Japan about the situation there” is restricted. The Japanese government bluntly rejected the U.N. rights expert’s views.
Whenever questions are raised on the situation of freedom of expression, the Abe administration repeats the claim like a broken record that Japan’s Constitution guarantees human rights. However, objective observations by human rights experts are shedding light on the different sides of the country. In describing his detention after being released, Yamashiro revealed the country’s bitter reality: “I was detained for such a long time baselessly. I believe that was intended to intimidate Okinawans.”
In any democratic country, such a high price should not have to be paid for dissent. Pressures within and outside the country are intensifying for the Abe government to make substantial steps to create a society where everyone can embrace the right to freedom of expression without fearing any consequences.