TOKYO — The Japanese parliament appeared ready Monday to move toward approval of a sweeping new “anti-conspiracy” measure that the government says is needed to stop terrorist attacks but that critics worry will be used to create a surveillance state.
The bill is part of a broader push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who faces only weak political opposition — to advance a broad legislative agenda that includes tougher law enforcement powers. A vote in favor of the bill by lawmakers was expected Tuesday.
Abe also wants his Liberal Democratic Party to come up with a concrete plan to amend the pacifist constitution, written by Japan’s American occupiers after its defeat in World War II.
“These moves show both Abe’s arrogance and his weakness,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University and an outspoken critic of the Abe government.
“He has no rivals and is at the height of his power, so it feels like he can do anything. We’re seeing the personalization of power, and it’s not all that different from what we see in the Trump administration,” Nakano said.
But the moves are also an attempt to divert attention from simmering rumors of corruption, he said. The prime minister has been implicated in two shady deals but strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Against this background, Abe has been pressing ahead with an ambitious legislative agenda.
His government’s “anti-conspiracy” bill, as it is known here, would make 277 offenses subject to conspiracy charges and is designed to stop people who are preparing to commit crimes, including terrorism, the government says.
The offenses include catching endangered animals, running an unlicensed motorboat race and stealing plants from a forest reserve. The justice minister was asked in parliament if picking mushrooms could be considered funding terrorism. He said yes.
Only organized crime groups need fear it, proponents of the bill say. It is needed so that Japan can sign the U.N. Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and to prevent terrorist attacks at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they say.
But some experts and civil liberties activists say that the provisions of the bill could be used to keep tabs on normal people.
“If an investigation into someone’s mind is allowed in order to punish preparations for a crime, it will limit freedom of thought,” Masatoshi Ohara, chairman of the Osaka Bar Association, said at a protest over the weekend, one of several that took place around the country.
Amnesty International and Greenpeace said the bill “could threaten freedom of expression, a core principle of democracy,” and the U.N. special rapporteur for the right to privacy wrote a letter to Abe saying it “may affect the exercise of the right to privacy as well as other fundamental public freedoms given its potential broad application.”
Abe’s top aide Monday called the letter “clearly inappropriate” and said the government had protested to the United Nations.
Japan’s powerful lower house of the Diet, or parliament, is set to pass the bill on Tuesday in what looks likely to be a raucous vote.
A committee hearing last week turned into a yelling match, as opposition lawmakers accused the government of ramming through the bill without sufficient discussion.
But the coalition led by Abe’s party has a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, so the measure is expected to pass easily. After the vote in the lower house Tuesday, the government wants it approved in the upper chamber before the current Diet session ends on June 18.
At the same time, Abe is pushing ahead with his plans to amend the constitution, the first time the document would be changed since it took effect 70 years ago.
He is widely considered to be trying to do what his grandfather, postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, failed to manage: revising a constitution that put “shackles” on Japan.
Abe said in an abrupt announcement this month that he wants the revision to take effect by 2020, and on Sunday he set a year-end deadline for his party to put forward a proposal.
The conservative prime minister has made no secret of his desire to change Article 9, which bars Japan from maintaining a “war potential” and renounces the use of force except to defend itself when it comes under direct attack.
Instead of a military, Japan has a “self-defense force.”
Abe has been promoting an amendment to the article to recognize the self-defense forces, essentially making them a bona fide military. But the prime minister has been widely criticized as being too vague.
Abe’s approval ratings have taken a hit, although they remain relatively high.
Support for Abe’s cabinet fell three points to 55.4 percent this month, according to a Kyodo News poll published Sunday.
More than three-quarters of respondents — 77 percent — said the government had not sufficiently explained the anti-
conspiracy bill. Still, more than half — 56 percent — said they supported Abe’s proposal to acknowledge and legitimize the self-defense forces in Article 9.