Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said an unpopular bill to protect state secrets is necessary to save lives as the regional security environment gets tougher, citing China’s establishment of an air-defense zone.
The zone in the East China Sea announced by China Nov. 23 was “a one-sided move backed by force,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo today.
“It’s a fact that the security environment surrounding Japan is becoming harsher,” Abe said. “We must protect the lives and property of the people under any circumstances.”
Abe moved to reassure a public worried about the new law as three opinion polls showed support for him sliding. Abe’s ruling coalition passed the bill Dec. 6 amid demonstrations outside parliament and stalling by the opposition that forced the government to extend the parliamentary session by two days.
Abe’s administration had maintained steady approval ratings since he took office almost a year ago, in contrast with the five previous prime ministers, each of whom stepped down in about a year as their popularity evaporated. While Abe need not face an election until 2016, the bill has sapped political capital for his economic reform and security agenda.
The premier, who is attempting to drive sustained growth in Japan after 15 years of deflation, also said today that the real battle for economic recovery starts now. Abe said the scope of secrets defined in the bill would not be expanded and wouldn’t affect the public’s right to know.
The new law stiffens penalties for bureaucrats who leak confidential information and for those who publish such information. Intended to facilitate exchanges of information with the U.S. and other governments, the bill is part of a broader push for a more robust security stance, which Abe has dubbed “active pacifism,” at a time of greater Chinese assertiveness in the region.
As part of his security push, Abe also set up a National Security Council modeled on the NSC in the U.S. to better coordinate defense policy. He’s considering reinterpreting the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution to be able to more freely use the country’s defense forces.
The secrets law is necessary because Japan must have a system in place to be able to exchange secrets with other countries, Abe said. He also cited the fight against terrorism after Japanese workers were among those killed in a siege at a gas plant in Algeria in January.
“There is some information we must prevent from leaking to terrorists at all costs, in order to protect lives,” Abe said.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has a majority in the lower house and a majority with its coalition ally, New Komeito, in the less powerful upper house. Some in his own party oppose his support for the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, and Komeito has expressed caution about his plans to revise the interpretation of the pacifist constitution to allow Japan to defend allies.
The government will continue to explain the secrecy law to the public, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today.
“The government was expecting support to fall this time,” he said, attributing the decline to media reporting about the bill.
A poll published by Japan News Network today found support for the Abe administration at 54.6 percent, down 13.9 points from the previous month and the lowest level since he took office a year ago. About 85 percent of respondents said there had been insufficient debate on the bill for the protection of secrets.
A separate poll published by the Asahi newspaper on Dec. 7 showed Abe’s support at 46 percent, down from 49 percent in a similar poll published Dec. 2. A third survey conducted by Kyodo News released today showed public backing for Abe dropped to 47.6 percent in December from 57.9 percent a month earlier.
JNN polled 1,200 people on Dec. 7 and 8, with a margin of error of 2.8 percent, while the Asahi polled 1,476 people on Dec. 7 and gave no margin of error.