Abe Vows to Pass Secrecy Law That Hurts Cabinet’s Popularity

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to push through an unpopular bill strengthening Japan’s secrecy laws that will help him shore up security ties with the U.S. in a bid to counter China’s growing military muscle in the region.

The government’s approval rating fell 4 percentage points from a month ago to 49 percent, the first time it dropped below 50 percent since Abe’s election almost a year ago, according to a poll by the Asahi newspaper. Half of those surveyed opposed the secrecy bill that punishes leaks of government information with jail terms of as much as 10 years.

“I plan to keep explaining the contents of the law carefully to citizens to ease their concerns,” Abe said at a meeting yesterday with Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of his coalition partner, the New Komeito Party. “I intend to get the law passed during the current session of parliament,” which ends Dec. 6.

The bill, which is backed by the U.S. and forms part of Abe’s broader push to strengthen security, offers a vague definition of state secrets, and opponents say it could lead to the sort of suppression of speech seen before World War II. The law stiffens penalties for bureaucrats who leak secrets and for the journalists who report them, and broadens the information covered from defense to diplomacy, terrorism and safety threats.

Public Scrutiny

The law can be used to hide whatever the government wishes to keep away from public scrutiny, said Mizuho Fukushima, a former leader of the Social Democratic Party for 10 years. “In current form, the prime minister can decide by himself what constitutes a secret,” said Fukushima on Nov. 14 in Tokyo.

The drafting of the law was done without outside consultations with related groups in Japan and shows the government’s haste and non-compromising stance, Tsutomu Shimizu, the secretary general of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’s team opposing the bill, said at a briefing in Tokyo on Dec. 2.

Unease over the measure accompanies an emergence of inflation in the world’s third-largest economy that threatens to damage further Abe’s public backing unless companies begin to raise base wages. The drop in support precedes action on the reforms that economists say would give businesses the biggest incentive to increase spending at home: freer labor laws and lower taxes.

Economic Issues

Abe “might attribute the loss of support as a cost of taking a stance on security issues, and thus ignore it,” Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo, said in a report. “This reaction risks further deterioration. In order to revive his support rate, he has to fight for a pro-reform economic agenda.”

About 51 percent of respondents to the Asahi survey said the bill should be debated further, while 22 percent said it should be abandoned and 14 percent said it should be approved in the current session. The newspaper surveyed 1,001 people by phone Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 and did not give a margin of error.

Public criticism of the bill heightened after Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, issued a blog post Nov. 29 likening those who demonstrate against the bill to terrorists.

Taking Risks

If Abe’s “support rating continues to fall and touches 30 percent, past patterns show the government will collapse within a year,” said Shogo Fujita, a strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. At the same time, “the passage of the secrecy bill is seen as an indication that Abe is determined to take risks and push through reforms which may not be popular but necessary.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said today that the government would not change its plan to present the bill for a final vote this week.

About 1,000 people, waving placards and banners appealing for protection of the public’s right to be informed, joined a march in Osaka yesterday led by members of the Osaka Bar Association that ended outside City Hall, according to a Kyodo News report.

Abe is seeking to strengthen Japan’s defense forces at a time of heightened tensions with China. The two countries are engaged in a territorial dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands that prompted China on Nov. 23 to set up an air-defense zone over the area and demand all planes entering report their flight plans. Japan, the U.S. and South Korea have since sent military aircraft through the zone without incident in a test of China’s resolve.

Biden’s Visit

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in Tokyo today before traveling to China tomorrow, said “the president and I agree that the U.S.-Japan security arrangement is the cornerstone of our security, not merely in the Pacific region.”

Abe has also moved to set up a National Security Council as the government drafts Japan’s first national security strategy since the war, and is considering reinterpreting the U.S.- imposed constitution to let Japanese forces come to the aid of an ally. U.S. officials have supported Abe’s push for collective self-defense and said they welcome the bill.

Currently, Japan’s troops cannot join in conflict abroad even as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The country’s Self-Defense Force is able to provide non-combatant support, such as logistics and medical services.

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