How a surprising blog post helped shift Japan’s perception of civil liberties

APTOPIX Japan Nuclear

By Simon Davies

In recent days a rather odd sequence of events has unfurled in Japan which has led some observers to speculate that this endlessly surprising nation is starting to wake from its 40-year slumber over privacy and civil liberties.

Over the past few decades the Japanese population has been ambivalent about rights issues, often accepting intrusion with barely a whisper of dissent. So when the government earlier this year introduced a draft law (roughly translated to the “protection of secrets act”) to mandate greater secrecy for public sector agencies, most people assumed that the public consultation on the legislation would pass unnoticed.

Norika Fujiwara

Norika Fujiwara

Indeed the consultation – which ends today – did almost escape without a hitch. Then last Friday, to the amazement of many, a famous actress – Norika Fujiwara – opened fire on the bill in her popular blog.

It’s rare enough for showbiz high-fliers in the West to turn political, but it is almost unheard of in Japan. Agents and managers ruthlessly enforce their clients’ neutrality on such matters. Although the former Miss Japan has a history of active engagement in international “good will” projects, this recent activism was a bolt out of the blue. Until that moment the Japanese population had been accustomed only to more predictable outpourings from the likes of legendary rock star Sugizo, who had also condemned the bill. Imagine, if you will, Bob Geldof, but with enhanced musical talent.

Fujiwara attacked the very integrity of the legislation, branding it as ambiguous, hostile and a threat to Japanese democracy. She urged her supporters to respond to the consultation in a similar vein. The moment was not lost on Japanese media.

This twist in the normally staid evolution of Japanese law is noteworthy for more than just its unique circumstances. It may signal a transition of conscience in Japan. While there have been mass demonstrations in recent months about nuclear safety, the somewhat abstract notion of “the right to know” has not until now permeated the public consciousness. According to the most recent information available, the government has now received an unprecedented 190,000 submissions to the consultation, not counting those sent through the post.  

This twist in the normally staid evolution of Japanese law is noteworthy for more than just its unique circumstances. It may signal a transition of conscience in Japan.

While there are no hard and fast rules on such matters, populations historically have embraced “derogable” rights as a package, with awareness of one right leading inevitably to awareness of others. For example, during the 1960s and early 1970s protests in Japan against overseas military involvement quickly set the dynamics in place for equivalent protests against broader government policy, economic reform and free speech.

The right of free expression is often the first to be widely understood, while in many countries the right to privacy – being more conceptually complex – is amongst the last to find widespread public support. It may be that Japan is edging toward such awareness.

Gohsuke Takama, president of META consulting and one of the country’s foremost privacy experts, told the Privacy Surgeon that he believes prospects for the evolution of rights are healthy.

“I can’t say activism is strong. but it has become stronger especially after March 11, 2011 [the day of the giant tsunami which resulted in public condemnation of government over its failure to adequately respond to the tragedy].”

“From that day people started self-organizing large protest street demonstrations against the government’s nuclear power agenda. Such activities had not been seen since 1970 in Japan [a time of mass-protest over military engagement, environmental issues and economic reform]. People here have been quite sheepish.”

“I see that as a sign for democracy activism, particularly if compared to last 40 years.”

Gohsuke Takama

Gohsuke Takama

Those who oppose the reform of civil liberties and privacy are fond of arguing that some of those rights – particularly privacy – are “culturally relative” and are of interest only to western nations. This view is often perpetuated by western corporate lobbyists supported by the US and UK governments, all of which have been keen to inhibit the spread of privacy law – just as they have worked to undermine European privacy reform on the flawed premise of a threat to security and the economy. While it’s true that the Japanese people have been largely silent on rights issues for some decades, it is historically absurd to argue that an interest in rights is culturally alien to Japan. Even a brief look at the upheaval there during the 1960s and 1970s should put an end to such notions.

It would be equally absurd to dismiss the past with the declaration “that was just the aberration of the 1960s“. Thailand had been tarred with the ambivalence brush until the pro-democracy movement of very recent years – a political shift that had not been witnessed since the early 1970s. Australia too had been silent on the issue of rights – and particularly on the right to privacy – for more than a century until a campaign against a proposed national identity card in 1987 shifted the psyche of the nation toward an aggressive pro-rights position.

It would be folly to argue that any nation is culturally (even genetically) passive about rights. The “pressure valve” view that such a national pathology can be sustained every so often by a single moment of orchestrated protest – whether the 1960s or otherwise – is invariably wrong.

The popular Western view that the Chinese population is overwhelmingly passive (relieved every couple of generations by “isolated” events such as the Tiananmen Square protest), could not be further from the truth. Beijing, in particular, has enjoyed a long and rich history of protest, and Tiananmen Square was merely the bloody aftermath of years of such expression. The same is true of Hong Kong, which in recent years has witnessed some of the world’s largest public demonstrations in support of freedoms.

The first of Japan's mass demonstrations of the modern era (photo courtesy of Gohsuke Takama)

The first of Japan’s mass demonstrations of the modern era (photo courtesy of Gohsuke Takama)

Equally, the notion that the Indian population is ambivalent about rights and freedoms is simply wrong, and is no more relevant to the true history of India than it would be to Bangladesh or Pakistan. Mass protests in India on rights issues are commonplace. Those who believe the fallacy of cultural ambivalence have clearly been blind to the Arab Spring.

The resurgence of protest throughout Asia over the curtailment of rights is likely to have particular relevance to Japan, where decades of neglect of privacy has created a legacy of risk. For example, the true extent of the Snowden disclosures has yet to reach the general population. Takama believes popular media has intentionally misrepresented the situation, with potentially devastating political consequences.

“On the NSA and Snowden, Japanese news media have been very well controlled. There’s not much coverage – or very biased coverage.”

“News media – or their influencers – are using “Lost in Translation” tactics. The Japanese translation of the name FISA is “Foreign Information Monitoring Law”, which is totally misleading. And weirdly, Japanese media are calling Snowden a “former CIA employee”. it seems they intentionally try not to use the word NSA”.

Although Japan continues to be largely isolated from privacy trends in the West there are heartening indicators of a real shift toward greater awareness of rights. The apparent conspiracy of silence over the Snowden revelations may provide the necessary trigger for that transition.