A Blow to Transparency; Japan Passes Secrecy Bill

9 December 2013

By Joel Rheuben

Rheuben is an Australian lawyer resident in Japan.

Japan’s “State Secrecy Bill”, previously reported on here, passed the upper house of Japan’s legislature on Dec. 6 to become law, even as large groups of protestors jostled with police outside.

Public interest in the now-State Secrets Law had soared in recent weeks, helped in part by ill-timed comments from the main ruling party’s Secretary General comparing protestors with terrorists.

The law was passed in record time, only because the government was able to use its numbers to cut off debate on in both houses.  Despite last-minute attempts to run out the clock by opposition parties, which took a resolute position against the Law only after the strength of public opposition became clear, it was finally rammed through at close to midnight.

Before voting against the law, opposition parties initially negotiated with the ruling bloc on its drafting, and did manage to extract some concessions.  Some of these concessions were more helpful than others.

One opposition party, the Japan Restoration Party, scored a spectacular “own goal” by including a provision that automatically removes the power to classify documents from any agency that has not made a classification decision within 5 years of the law’s enactment.

The JRP had sought to reduce the number of agencies to which the law applies altogether (it remains unclear why, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture or the Consumer Affairs Agency need the power to declare state secrets).  Instead, in addition to the 5-year rule, the Prime Minister may now (but, note, not “must”) also remove classification powers from agencies if advised by “eminent persons” that such powers are unneeded.

Naturally, however, both amendments will simply lead to more classifications, rather than fewer, as agencies fight to keep these powers in reserve.

The price for this “victory” by the JRP is that documents can now be classified for up to 60 years, instead of 30 years as under the original government proposal.

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