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As I See It: Ruling coalition recklessly taking 'anti-conspiracy' legislation for granted

Opposition party lawmakers surround the seat of the head of the lower house Committee on Judicial Affairs, left, in protesting a vote on the so-called anti-conspiracy bill, on May 19, 2017. Pictured on the far right is Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda. (Mainichi)

Watching the Diet deliberations on the so-called anti-conspiracy bill is almost unbearable. The government and ruling parties do not appear to be making an earnest effort to sweep away concerns that the legislation "violates freedom of conscience and thought," "will usher in a surveillance society" and "is insufficient as an antiterrorism measure."

The stage for discussion of the bill has moved to the House of Councillors. For the ruling parties to take steps toward enacting the law without sufficient explanation can only be branded a reckless act that relies on the ruling parties' power in numbers.

The proposed legislation is formally called the bill to revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds. It establishes a new crime of "preparing for terrorist and other acts" by changing the conditions constituting a crime of "conspiracy," thereby making it possible to punish perpetrators of organized crimes at the preparing stage.

The bill targets "terrorist and other organized crime groups," with "preparatory acts" to carry out crimes set as a condition for applying it.

The government and ruling coalition have stressed that the bill is different from proposed legislation that was rejected three times in the 2000s. They furthermore say that it is indispensable for Japan to enter into the U.N. Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, and that it will also serve as a measure against terrorism ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The opposition Democratic Party (DP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and other parties see the bill as the current Diet session's greatest point of contention, and began raising questions about it even before a Cabinet decision on the bill was made.

Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said that he would explain the legislation once a final draft was compiled, but since the bill emerged and deliberations were launched, opponents and supporters have failed to engage and talks have been making no progress.

Much time has been devoted to verbal clashes over whether ordinary citizens would be subject to investigations under the legislation. Opposition parties have expressed fears that ordinary people could be investigated without limit. The government, meanwhile, has reiterated that "people without any connection to organized crime groups and people living ordinary lives in society will not be subject to investigations."

The government is probably trying to prevent the bill's image from being tainted by arguing that the legislation bears no relation to the great majority of people. It is hard to say the government has been making any effort to frankly explain the bill.

State Minister of Justice Masahito Moriyama stated at an April 21 meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Judicial Affairs, "It is not necessarily the case that the general public would not be subject to investigations, but such cases would be very limited." Though he later retracted this remark, I'm sure I was not the only one to find myself nodding at his comments.

Such remarks are not the only cause for concern. During an April 28 meeting of the lower house Committee on Judicial Affairs, Kaneda commented on how to distinguish between ordinary acts and preparation for criminal activities, saying, "There could be outward circumstances such as having a map, binoculars and a notepad to case an area (for a crime), as opposed to having beer and a boxed lunch for a cherry-blossom viewing party." An opposition lawmaker quickly shot back, "It's possible that people have binoculars for bird-watching."

Kaneda's statements created the strong impression that outward appearances alone would be insufficient to judge whether someone was preparing a crime, and that investigation of the person's "innermost thoughts" would be a key requisite to forming a case. The bill was revised as it went through the lower house, but opposition party lawmakers remain worried about the possibility of everyday surveillance such as intercepting emails and phone-tapping.

One thing I have felt while following Diet debate, protest rallies and interviewing experts is that whether the public supports the proposed legislation corresponds to whether they can trust the law enforcers that will apply "conspiracy charges" and the governing bloc that is playing a leading role in legislating the crime of conspiracy.

Koji Harada, former head of the Hokkaido Prefectural Police Kushiro district headquarters, comments, "Police tend to think that a bit of excessiveness is permissible if it is to maintain public order." He fears that a "crime of conspiracy" could contribute to police surveillance of citizens. His warning could remind the public of an incident uncovered in 2014 in which officers at Ogaki Police Station in Gifu Prefecture were found to have collected information on individuals. The station is said to have compiled information on residents' attitudes toward plans by a subsidiary of Chubu Electric Power Co. to construct a wind power station, and leaked this to the subsidiary. Even if this is one small slice of "excessiveness" now, there are no guarantees that Harada's fears won't become reality.

A significant number of people have criticized the bill, fearing its reckless application by investigative authorities while recalling the prewar Peace Preservation Act, which was used to suppress thought. The government and ruling coalition's mission now is to clear away such concerns.

As if to hide Kaneda's shaky comments during Diet deliberations, the ruling coalition joined in a majority vote to permit the director-general of the Justice Ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau to attend. Kaneda followed the lead of the director-general's remarks, using up the opposition's time for questions on the bill.

In the lower house Committee on Judicial Affairs, the ruling parties forcefully ended deliberations on the bill on the grounds that the "guideline" of 30 hours had been reached, and moved to vote on the bill. This insincere attitude clearly stirred up the public's concern and distrust.

The opposition parties also surely bear responsibility for struggling to find an effective line of attack against Kaneda and being unable to arouse opposing public sentiment. But that does not justify the approach of the government and ruling coalition.

Isao Itabashi, research head at the Council for Public Policy, a public utility foundation that supports the bill, commented, "We cannot deny that there are aspects to terrorism countermeasures that infringe on people's freedom and rights. That's why it's important to obtain public understanding when creating laws, considering the balance between freedom and safety."

What Itabashi says is true. If Justice Minister Kaneda were to first frankly explain the bill's "infringement on people's rights" and then boldly explain why the bill is nevertheless necessary, then the situation may have developed completely differently.

Under a system in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe alone wields strong power, the ruling coalition has forced votes on a significant number of bills that faced opposition from within and without the Diet, including the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, and security-related legislation. The end of the current Diet session is approaching and the ruling coalition could resort to the same methods with the "anti-conspiracy" bill.

Time and again, the ruling parties leave unease and concerns by the wayside, shrug off protests and recklessly use their majority in the Diet. If they don't want people to see them this way, then they should amend their attitude of taking bill's enactment for granted and start deliberation on it afresh. (By Hiroshi Endo, City News Department)

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