New law sparks fears of downward spiral in civic freedoms


On 15th June 2017, the Japanese government passed the widely-condemned Act on Punishment of Organised Crime and Control of Crime Proceeds, also known as the “Anti-Conspiracy” bill. The law's passage sparked citizen protests and incurred a sustained fightback from civil society. Many fear the controversial new law's vague wording enables unwarranted surveillance that could instigate a downward spiral in protection of freedom of expression in Japan.  

The Anti-Conspiracy law permits the investigation into and punishment of planning 277 types of possible crimes - from copyright to arson. Japanese authorities claim the law is needed to ratify the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC) and to strengthen Japan's counter-terrorism measures. Freedom of speech advocates, however, have criticised the overly-broad provisions in the new law, claiming they could easily be manipulated by authorities to repress dissent. 

On 18th May 2017, Joseph Cannataci, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy for the UN Human Rights Council, sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stating that the legislation could potentially “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression”. Cannataci also noted that within the law:

“[T]he definition of what an ‘organised crime group’ is vague and not clearly limited to terrorist organisations”. [He added] that there was “no sufficient clarification on the specific definition of ‘plan’ and ‘preparatory actions’”.

Cannataci's comments come a year after UN Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye cited concerns over a worsening environment for freedom of expression in 2016. Some have viewed the passage of the new law as indicative of Japan's move away from international commitments to human rights.  

After relentlessly advocating against the bill, civil society groups have also decried the enactment of the new law. On 20th June 2017, Human Rights Now (HRN) gave an oral statement to the UN Human Rights Council during the 35th Session, imploring Japanese authorities to adhere to recommendations made by mandated UN officials. HRN stated

"Recently, the government strongly protested a letter sent by UN Special Rapporteur Cannataci over the Conspiracy Bill which risks interfering with civil society activity. We strongly urge the Japanese government to respect the voices of UN special rapporteurs and take concrete steps to implement the recommendations made by Mr. Kaye".


On 18th March 2017, Hiroji Yamashiro, a prominent anti-U.S. military base activist in Okinawa, was released on bail after five months in detention. Yamashiro was originally arrested in October 2016 on suspicion of cutting a barbed wire fence surrounding the U.S. North Training Area in Takae, Higashi Village. The 64-year old was subsequently held in pre-trial detention for over five months by Japanese authorities. 

A number of civil society groups condemned Yamashiro's arbitrary arrest and detention, claiming it was politically motivated. In a joint oral statement on the activist's case to the UN Human Rights Council, several civil society groups claimed that Yamashiro, as chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Centre, was selectively targeted due to his role as a leader of the non-violent peace movement against the U.S. military facilities in Ryukyu/Okinawa. The presence of U.S forces in Ryukyu/Okinawa is a long-running source of tension between Okinawan residents and Japanese authorities. Yamashiro's lengthy detention without trial has become emblematic of the tactics used by the government to silence dissent in Japan. In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 15th June 2017, the activist condemned the unlawful treatment against him for his activism. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 3rd May 2017, approximately 55,000 people gathered in Tokyo to protect Japan’s Peace Constitution. Demonstrators mobilised to resist recent moves by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to amend Japan's pacifist constitution. Despite being held annually, this year's May 3rd Constitutional Rally was the largest ever. Protesters chanted, "Protect the constitution!" And signs at the demonstration read:  

“a country that doesn’t make war” and “don’t allow war legislation” 

There were no reports of the protest turning violent. 

After the passage of Japan's new Anti-Conspiracy law on 15th June 2017, thousands took to the streets of Tokyo to protest against the legislation. While activists have been protesting against the law since December 2016, the enactment of the new legislation triggered a spike in mobilisations. Video footage below documents activists shouting "No Pasaran!" against the new law. Reports from the ground did not detail any infringements on the right to peaceful assembly.