Freedom of assembly in Japan under threat as protests against nuclear power and Constitutional change blocked

Article 21 of Constitution of Japan reads as follows:

Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.

In reality, freedom of assembly in Japan means applying for a permit to claim that right. A protest march has to receive permission and then usually assigned some degree of police escort. Frequently in the case of political rallies and marches viewed as radical, particularly on the far Left, the police presence is disproportionately high.

It is, though, relatively rare to have a permit to march outright denied. If it is, ostensibly this is for reasons related to the location rather than the content of the march itself (“all other forms of expression are guaranteed”). But the tenuous nature of freedom of assembly in Japan was brought to the surface by two recent developments.

A civil society group called the Ishikawa Prefecture Society to Protect the Constitution applied to use the plaza in front of Kanazawa City Hall for a rally to mark 70 years since the Constitution was enacted. The city, however, denied it permission on the grounds that the plaza is part of a government building and thus any event held there must maintain neutrality.

The group has appealed, saying the denial is unjustified and that the government has a duty to respect freedom of expression. The application for the rally, which was planned for May 3rd (Constitution Memorial Day) and expected to attract some 300 participants, was submitted in late March. The application was rejected on April 14th but news only reached the media on April 21st. The Ishikawa Prefecture Society to Protect the Constitution held similar rallies at the plaza until 2014, though was forced to use a substitute location in 2015 and 2016 because the site was undergoing construction work.

In March, the municipal authorities revised the rules on use of the City Hall facilities. Whereas before the wording of prohibited events was restricted to “protests/demonstrations”, the new regulation expanded on this to include a demonstration of “agreement or opposition to a certain policy, ideology or opinion”. The city employees judged that the motives of the organisers were political in nature and thus refused the permit.

An alternative argument to be considered here is that any rally to commemorate the Constitution is by its very nature “neutral”, since the Constitution is the bedrock of all rights of Japanese nationals. How can protecting that be polemical? However, any discourse related to the Constitution has now been politicised following the latest inroads made by the government in changing it, most notably the state security legislation passed in 2015 that allows for “collective self-defence” overseas: Japan coming to the military aid of allies, which arguably violates Article 9 and its famous renunciation of war (“The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”).

protest letter complaint fukui nuclear power

Japanese media also reported on April 21st that a small group of anti-nuclear power activists that had been protesting outside the headquarters of the Fukui prefectural government had been asked to refrain from their activities by the prefecture. The activists from Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants Fukui Network were given a letter on March 31st with a list of complaints, including about the volume of the protests, how their banners were harming the “beauty” of the area and that they were obstructing the road. The document was shared online on social media by Masahito Wakaizumi, a member of the group that has been carrying on its dedicated roadside protest since July 2012 with the permission of the police, as required by laws on use of public streets.

Coincidentally neighbouring Ishikawa, Fukui is home to thirteen commercial reactors at five nuclear power plants: Tsuruga, Ōi, Mihama and Takahama. There have been several incidents at the plants, including a fatal accident at Mihama in 2004. The demand from the prefecture for the activists to cease comes at a delicate time when courts have ruled that reactors in Kansai and Ehime can go back into operation. The high court decision last month in favour of Kansai Electric Power Company lifts the injunction on Takahama Nuclear Power Plant. The Saga governor also just this week approved the restart of two nuclear reactors at Genkai Nuclear Power Plant.

Gathering in small numbers to make a speech or hold up placards outside a certain location is generally sanctioned, though protestors must be careful not to block pedestrians or traffic in any way. A minor infraction may be seized upon by police to make an arrest. Many dogged activists take full advantage of this grey zone to maintain a regular presence with bullhorns outside the site of an ideological enemy. A case in point is Zengakuren’s frequent and clamorous encampment outside the entrance to Hōsei University.

The title of this article, claiming freedom of assembly in Japan to be “under threat”, may seem alarmist. The issue does merit attention, however, as public land remains contentious.

Last year, the mayor of Ebina City attempted to ban political flash mobs in public places, only for a court in Yokohama to uphold the rights of the anti-war protestors behind the mobs. The anti-nuclear tents that had occupied a corner of land outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Kasumigaseki since September 2011 were forcibly removed in August last year after a protracted legal battle. The weekly vigils protesting nuclear power that gather on Fridays outside the Kantei, or official prime minister’s residence, in Kasumigaseki recently marked five years since they started. However, the topography of the district and its meandering, narrow pavements makes it hard for large numbers to congregate.

In contrast to the remarkable scenes of mass street protests in Seoul witnessed over the past few months, it is probably impossible to imagine such a scenario in Tokyo. The main roads encircling the National Diet were cordoned off by police during the 2015 protests against the security legislation, relegating the tens of thousands of protestors to the cramped pavements. The single main boulevard leading up to the Diet was sometimes opened to demonstrators, such as the landmark August 30th rally, though even this privilege was not guaranteed and walls of parked police vehicles prevented anyone from entering the road area. While the student group SEALDs tried earnestly to reference the peak of the 1960 Anpo movement in its publicity, those days are actually unfeasible for physical reasons.

The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. As we head towards 2019 and the mooted abdication of Emperor Akihito, we can expect to see various anti-emperor and far-left groups protests but their rallies and marches will be curbed in terms of where and when they can get permits, and the marches will be broken up into smaller groups and kettled by police. In part this is done for protection, since the ultra-nationalist hard core who always attend as a counter-protest may represent a genuine physical threat, but also to disperse the effect and strength of the march. This happened with the wave of protests during the previous changeover.

The upcoming conspiracy bill may also be used to silence certain dissenting voices and stop them mobilising in public, though its full implications for civil liberties are potentially even graver than this. Finally, along with sporting spectacle, the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 will undoubtedly provide further excuses to constrain freedom of assembly in Tokyo.


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