Protests Are Erupting in Japan Against the Government. Here's Why.

Protests Are Erupting in Japan Against the Government. Here's Why.

The news: Thousands took to the streets outside the Japanese parliament building Friday to protest the newly enacted state-secrets law that increases potential punishment for leaking sensitive information to the press.

The law was pushed through last week by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling party in parliament, despite active protests and loud criticism condemning the law as anti-democratic.

What the law does: The brand new law sets the maximum punishment for leaking state secrets at 10 years in prison for government officials, and up to 5 years in prison for journalists that encourage the leaks, if they use “grossly inappropriate” means.

The law bolsters the newly created National Security Council in Japan, as Abe’s ministry attempts to focus control of foreign policy within his office. The security council will make it easier for Abe’s office to direct and communicate with police and security agencies in Japan, and monitor the intelligence being gathered and distributed. This law discourages leaks of sensitive information, and enables the government to take a more active role prosecuting those leaks.

Abe hopes this new law along with the NSC, encourages foreign powers, particularly the United States, to share sensitive intelligence with Japan without fear of a potential leak.

Why this matters: As the U.S. faces its own difficulties with security leaks, governments around the world scramble to tighten their own grips on the information passing from government officials to journalists and the public.

Yet the laws enacted to discourage leaks spark public outcry against anti-democratic procedures. Over the weekend, Japan’s new law was criticized as “the largest ever threat to democracy in postwar Japan” as it restricts the freedoms of Japan’s citizens and press. The law is seen as Abe’s attempt to increase Japan’s foreign influence and might, despite the fact that the country’s military is currently set by its constitution for a self-defense role only. But this law comes at the expense of certain rights, and establishes the same sort of government hording of information – and prosecution of leaks – that prompted Edward Snowden to flee the U.S. after his original NSA leaks.

With the law being labeled “anti-liberty” and “dangerous,” the Prime Minister’s popularity is taking a significant hit. Typically popular in Japan, Abe saw his approval ratings drop nearly 14% to 54.6%, the lowest mark since he took office. The law itself is wildly unpopular, with more than 80% calling for it to be revised or abolished.

Perhaps the flack the law is catching will indeed prompt Abe’s ministry to reconsider. But for now, Abe simply wishes he “spent more time to explain the bill carefully.” As it stands, the protection of state secrets is the priority. Citizens' concerns for their liberties will have to wait until later.