TOKYO — Japan’s parliament approved today a state secrets law that stiffens penalties for leaks by government officials and for journalists who seek such information, overriding criticism that it could be used to cover up government abuses and suppress civil liberties.
The ruling coalition forced a vote on the bill in an upper house committee on Thursday. Despite stalling tactics by opposition parties, the full upper house approved the bill today by 130 to 82.
The more powerful lower house had approved the bill last week.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to increase Japan’s global security role and create a more authoritarian government at home, says the law is needed to protect national security and assuage U.S. concerns over the risks of sharing strategically sensitive information with Tokyo.
Critics worry the law could be used to hinder public disclosures, punish whistleblowers or muzzle the media since journalists could be jailed for seeking information they do not know is classified as secret.
The bill allows heads of ministries and agencies to classify 23 vaguely worded types of information related to defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism, almost indefinitely.
Even some members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party complained that the government rushed too quickly to get the bill approved before the end of the current parliamentary session.
“I think there needs to be more explanation,” party member Takashi Uto said during the committee debate. “Naturally people are concerned because they don’t know what will be a secret.”
Most objections to the legislation were over human rights implications and over the lack of a guarantee of independent or parliamentary oversight over secrecy decisions. However, during the final debate, lawmakers also questioned how the law might affect civilian employees doing business with government agencies.
“People will be living in a society where they could be punished for not knowing what’s secret and what’s not,” Japan Communist Party lawmaker Sohei Nihi said in arguing against the bill before its passage. “Arrests, court judgments, all could be secret. This would violate the constitution.”
Foreign businesses engaged in defense contracting, or even companies dealing in “dual-use” technologies and products that have military applications could be affected, said Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University in Tokyo.
“If you’re in contact with the government, you’re at risk of crossing a line even if you don’t know there’s a line there,” Repeta said. “You could be in the position of trying to sell a product that might involve designated secrets. It’s something companies have to think about. It’s an entirely new area.”
Steve Vickers, CEO of Steve Vickers Associates, a risk mitigation and political risk company operating throughout Asia, said he doubted the bill would have much impact on most businesses.
But there are greater potential pitfalls for China-related business, said Vickers, who sees the legislation as mainly aimed at concerns over leaks of sensitive information to China.
“Mainland (China) firms in certain specific technical areas might come under greater scrutiny,” Vickers said. “The greater risk is to Japanese firms with exposure in the mainland currently.”
The government says details of the legislation can be worked out after its passage and has appealed to the public for “understanding.”
The government was eager to pass the secrets bill because it is needed for an associated measure that established a National Security Council that made the prime minister the top of the chain of command, giving him more power.
Older Japanese, intellectuals, lawyers and activists fear the country could be edging toward the sort of repression of a free press and speech seen before and during World War II which resulted in the arrests of tens of thousands of people. Thousands of protesters turned out to beat drums and rally against the legislation, which surveys show is not popular with the general public.
The law mandates prison terms of up to 10 years for government officials who leak secrets. Journalists who get information in an “inappropriate” or “wrong” way could be jailed for up to five years. It bans attempted leaks, inappropriate reporting, complicity and solicitation.