Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Global Trends in Surveillance: A Case Study of Japan

-- By JackChai - 13 Mar 2020


The United States and China have been leaders in state surveillance, making use of improved technologies to intrude more and more into their citizens’ lives. While China openly conducts such activities, as can be seen in the Xinjiang province, the United States’ lack of openness does not insulate it from the reality of the severity of surveillance in the country, as we have discussed time and again in class. In both the United States and China, counter-terrorism has been used as an excuse to further invade into people’s privacy; this paper will use the case study of a recent Japanese law to illustrate how the culture of state surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism is turning into a global phenomenon.

Japan's Anti-Conspiracy Law

On June 15th 2017, Japan enacted the “Act on Punishment of the Preparation of Acts of Terrorism and Other Organized Crimes” bill. The new law provides for wide-spanning authority for the government to preemptively surveil and detain those who are found to be conspiring to commit 277 established criminal acts; the bill also allows for group criminal liability, expanding the umbrella of surveillance to anybody within a certain group if one individual is targeted. While Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, assured the public that the law requires an element of criminality for citizens to be surveilled and is directed towards acts of terrorism, critics argue that ordinary acts can easily be construed as acts in furtherance of a crime, thus placing a vast array of the population in danger of being surveilled. The overarching fear is that the police could target an individual for surveillance, and any member of any “group” that the individual associates with could also be surveilled. Furthermore, since the bill is fundamentally a criminalization of conspiracy, the burden of proof needed to begin surveillance on an individual suspected of conspiracy does not appear to be very high.

Background on the Law

The incident that many believe triggered the introduction of the anti-conspiracy law was a peaceful protest. Hiroji Yamashiro, a 64-year-old resident of Okinawa Prefecture, was surveilled and then arrested for protesting against the relocation of a military base to a rural Okinawa destination; he was held in solitary confinement for five months without bail. Shortly thereafter, the conspiracy bill was introduced, with many speculating that the introduction was a measure to criminalize such protests and arrest wrongdoers under the new conspiracy crimes established by the bill. During deliberations of the bill, Abe testified that the new law was required to “prevent terrorism before it happens,” and to ensure the security of the 2020 Olympic Games. Ultimately, the bill was “steamroll[ed]” through Japan’s legal institutions in a manner that concerned Japanese legal scholars and humanitarians alike.

Impact of the Law

Currently, the full impact of the anti-conspiracy law is still to be determined. However, as previously mentioned, the language of the law exposes a large sector of the population to surveillance, in the name of counter-terrorism and anti-conspiracy. For example, Hiroji Yamashiro was the chairman of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, a local protest group. In an interview after his arrest, Yamashiro reported being subjected to “inhumane physical conditions;” although Japanese law only allows for a 23-day imprisonment period without trial, Yamashiro, a cancer survivor, was held for 5 months without access to medical care and only limited access to his attorney. This display of power from Japanese law enforcement shows that misuse of the anti-conspiracy law could be likely, given its extremely broad textual reading. Following Yamashiro’s arrest and the passage of this law, other members of the same group reported that their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly were violated, presenting a taste of what the full potential of this law could look like. The anti-conspiracy law’s impact is believed to be wide-reaching enough that even foreign scholars and critics have expressed their concerns. For example, Edward Snowden stated in an interview with The Japan Times that the bill could give rise to “the beginning of a new wave of mass surveillance in Japan,” and warns that the “government may have intentions other than its stated goal.” Snowden concluded that due to the broad language of the bill, it is very feasible for the current administration or even future administrations to use the bill in a way that defies its original intentions.


For a country with some of the world’s safest cities, Abe’s use of counter-terrorism as an excuse to pass this law presents many privacy and security concerns for not just Japan, but also for other countries who may see this as useful precedent to expand their own surveillance programs in the footsteps of the world powers. Because of that, it is vastly important, now more than ever, to bring attention to surveillance trends such as this one in order for the public to have the knowledge to make informed choices about what information they may risk exposing to their government entities.

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r1 - 13 Mar 2020 - 21:16:45 - JackChai
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