Japan and the Dangers of the National Security Law
It is a historical irony that the government of Premier Shinzo Abe motivates the new law on State secrets protection by tying it to the creation of a National Security Council (NCS), decided by the parliament December 6, 2013.
The reason for the creation of NSC, in its turn, as given by the government, is the need for closer cooperation with the United States. Without the State secrets protection law full cooperation would not, according to the government, be possible. The US and other allies would not trust that secrets would be kept, not leaked. The necessity of this cooperation, in turn, is a part of a strengthening of the US-Japan alliance as well as furthering Japanese international influence, according to the government.
The historical irony consists of the fact that the freedom of information and expression lodged in the constitution of Japan, now being partly undermined, were formulated by the United States during the Occupation after the Second World War in order to ensure full democracy.
Japan is of course no exception historically concerning censorship and limits to freedom of expression. As in many other countries, even during periods when the goal has been development of modernization, the official restraints on citizens in this respect were wide-ranging.
In spite of striving to create a ”modern” state during the end of the 19th century, citizen´s rights were severely circumscribed. This included rules to limit political congregations as well as a total prohibition for women to participate in such gatherings. During the Taisho era a freer atmosphere ruled for some time, only to be exchanged for gradually tightening during the twenties onwards during the first parts of Showa.
The control included censorship of different subjects. Censorship control took several forms, not only prohibition after publication but also for example pre-censorship. Penalties included fines and prison terms.
During the Pacific War newspapers were completely controlled to the extent that every newspaper office had its resident censor. Japan surrendered August 15, 1945 and on August 28, the Cabinet Board of Information announced that press censorship, which had been in force since 1937, would be removed. But on the same day as the surrender was signed, September 2, new censorship was introduced, this time by the American occupation forces under the Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD). It covered all print, but also film, theatre and mail. Regarding newspapers, the existing censors, placed in newspaper offices, were sometimes retained, as there was a lack of Japanese speakers among the occupation staff. Punishments ranged from suspension of publication to deportation (of a Taiwanese and a Korean) and hard labor. The rules, that were unclear and even led to discussions regarding interpretation and implementation within the CCD, led to a sense of insecurity and thus restraint among Japanese.
Censorship in all forms does not only have the result of suppressing certain information. It has also the added effect of self-censorship. The knowledge of the existence of censorship leads to precaution and fear so that information which might be regarded as dangerous by the government is not even introduced as an attempt at publication. This is particularly so if punishments for any trespassing against the information control are not clearly spelled out. The results were clearly seen during Meiji, Taisho and pre-1945 Showa and not the least during the American occupation censorship 1945-49.
To my mind, these observations are relevant in connection with the new State Secrets Law. According to the law, the definition of ”special secrets” referred to by the law is vague, covering the wide areas of defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and to be decided by ministries and agencies only. The punishments are severe, both for those giving out information and for those seeking information. There are no checks on what is classified, neither on the degree of punishment. This censorship, without being called censorship, is total. The result will be a severely limited freedom of expression, aggravated by the fear of stepping into danger. This makes abstention from even seeking information probable, as it is not known what in itself is secret.
In any state it is necessary that some information, for instance pertaining to defense, is secret. But Japan already has laws binding national servants to a duty of confidentiality with clearly stated punishments for breaking these rules. As a comparison, the execution of laws in the United States regarding secrecy and security is subjected to checks and balances with the object to control misuse.
An important reason for censorship and information control, however, is not only to limit or completely undermine knowledge of certain subjects. It is also practiced in order to shape the consciousness and attitudes of the population.
In addition to the motivation of national security, there clearly seems to be a second government agenda related to it for the present Abe cabinet, namely the forging of a stronger national consciousness. In the national security strategy approved by the Cabinet in December the need for “promoting a feeling of love for one´s nation and hometown” is included.
In all nations, the education system is used to mold the children and consequently the citizens in the current ideology of the state. This can change within rather short time. In my native Sweden at the moment, school education centers on fostering children to become self-assertive and non-authoritarian, to regard men and women as equal, to have a positive attitude towards hbt questions, and to prepare them for flexibility in life. This is rather the opposite from my own school time five decades ago when the emphasis was on the teacher as an authority, a high school exam was only for the brightest and the goal was a set place in society. These two opposing views still however fit under the heading of democracy.
In Japan, during Meiji, the challenging goal in view of the threatening incursions from Western powers was to mold a patriotic consciousness among a people who until then had felt more loyalty to a han than to the nation. The burgeoning central school system was an important part in shaping this consciousness. The first real test was the Russo-Japanese war 1904-05. That the terms of the peace were widely felt as unjust, even leading to riots, because of Japan´s victory was in fact a receipt showing the success of the creation of patriotic feelings.
It is often said that the Tokugawa shogunate was a stagnant, controlled society. Actually, in spite of all regulations, it was a society where freedom was created and expressed, on the one hand by chonin, city inhabitants, with the wealth of business and the lively popular culture of everyman, and on the other hand by the farming population which responded to poverty and famine with thousands of strikes and riots.
On the contrary, during Meiji and Taisho, in spite of ideologies like Communism and a nascent feminism becoming popular in certain circles, conventionality grew among most citizens. Gradually during Showa, official suppression and censorship were strengthened. The well-known weeding out of all dissension continued ever stronger during the succeeding years of war. Dissent became impossible while the general public was indoctrinated to patriotism to death.
Concurrent with the State Secrets Law, the Abe government is now proceeding with an agenda in another area, education, relevant for the question of democracy. The Education ministry and an advisory commission to that ministry have recently suggested new standards for textbooks with requirements that they nurture patriotism under the veil of giving a balanced picture of disputed historical facts. In an interview with New York Times in December, 2013 ministry officials said that in practice two extremely disputed issues, basic for the relations between Japan and China and Japan and other Asian countries would be included, namely the Nanking massacre in 1937 and the comfort women. This would mean that the textbooks would be required to include viewpoints of nationalist scholars in dealing with these subjects. Up until now, it has been possible to challenge such interpretations of history in school textbooks, even if it sometimes has meant years of court struggles, as Saburo Ienaga showed. These and other changes influencing the teaching of history in schools will create a different understanding of Japan´s past and present.
Until now, the experiences of the Fifteen Years’ War 1930-1945 had resulted in a Japan widely regarded as a country adverse to militarism, based on Paragraph 9 of the Constitution. The government is now also working on changing this unique manifestation of national pacifism.
The combination of the policies of the Abe cabinet regarding security, education and the constitution are extremely worrying. The government seems to ignore aspects of history, precedents and own laws in favor of a system that undermines important aspects of democracy, including that of freedom of expression, built into the constitution of Japan.
Ph.D. in Japanese History, author of Ken’etsu (Tokyo 1989, 2011)
Foreign correspondent of Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden in Tokyo 1983-1993