Journalists fear land purchase law will hit local residents

June 4, Okinawa Prefecture Police raided the home of entomologist Akino Miyagi after throwing trash she found in a forest in Yambaru, an area destined to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at the entrance gate to the U.S. Army’s North Training Center in April .

Miyagi, who has studied the forest, said the move was a form of protest, as the area is littered with debris – some dangerous – thrown by US forces who have used it for training in the past. When she complained to the police about the garbage, they ignored her, hence the protest.

The raid, in which police confiscated Miyagi’s phone and computer, was cited by reporter Shigeru Handa, who often covers defense issues, on the web program Democracy time while discussing a new law that, for reasons of national security, supposedly restricts the sale of property to foreign parties. The law was passed on June 16, but when Handa discussed it, it had yet to be passed by the Upper House, where he was due to appear as an expert. Although the bill pointedly targets foreign agents, Handa said his real aim was to allow the government to monitor the actions of the Japanese. Had the law already been in effect, Miyagi could have been investigated even before dumping the U.S. military’s trash on her doorstep.

The bill had been in preparation for a long time, but it was only since this spring, when its fate was being discussed in the Diet, that the press seriously considered its ramifications. A survey of newspaper editorials by Sankei Biz on April 5 explained that the bill was finalized by Cabinet on March 26 “to regulate the sale and use of properties” located near facilities associated with national defense. The initial concern, according to Sankei Biz, was that Chinese and South Korean capital was being used to “buy” land on remote islands or adjacent to Self-Defense Forces (SDF) facilities.

Sankei Biz reported that both Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun fully support the bill, which Yomiuri says must be passed “before it is too late”. Sankei Shimbun was more specific, saying that in addition to facilities in Japan owned by the SDF and the US military, the law should also apply to lands surrounding nuclear power plants and Japanese coast guard facilities. The law would require that sales to foreign interests be approved by the central government, and that such approval would involve inquiries into the purpose of the transaction and the potential buyer’s background. If the government finds something wrong, it can block the sale. Failure to comply can result in fines and prison terms.

Although the Sankei Biz article mentions an op-ed by Mainichi Shimbun on opposition to the bill, most of the mainstream media took its content at face value. One reporter who challenged the entire premise of the law was Shunji Taoka, who called it “stupid” during another Democracy Times program, adding that it was born out of a paranoid right-wing campaign to demonize Hong Kongers who invested in properties near Hokkaido ski resorts more than a decade ago. The idea that foreign agents would buy fixed properties next to sensitive facilities in order to spy on them or interfere with operations is ludicrous, Taoka said. This is not how intelligence works. Countries now have access to satellites and drones, and most covert schemes involve cyberattacks and internet harassment, which can be carried out from anywhere. In the same spirit, Asahi Shimbun reported on June 16 that there were virtually no examples of land adjacent to sensitive facilities owned by foreign entities, let alone evidence of foreign owners compromising national security.

Taoka suggested that the bill was not limited to monitoring overseas real estate purchases. Originally it covered properties within a mile of a sensitive facility, but the distance limitation has since become ambiguous. More importantly, all real estate transactions could be covered by this version of the bill, not just those involving foreigners.

These issues were the concern of a bipartisan group of local elected officials who tried to defeat the bill. According to a report in Tokyo Shimbun, the group said the law could be used to restrict the civil rights of their constituents. A number of officials interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun feared that anyone who complained about the functioning of US bases or the SDF would be investigated. Local governments would be forced by the central government to hand over private data on residents, and the law now covers almost all forms of infrastructure, including railways and broadcasting facilities. A lawyer who read the text of the bill told Tokyo Shimbun that its stated goal is to “maintain basic living conditions and security”, which means almost anything can apply.

Handa and Taoka explained during their respective discussions how the bill is intentionally vague and that all details would be determined by the prime minister after it is passed. While there is a panel that is supposed to advise the Prime Minister on these matters, there is no rule that says the government must follow his recommendations. At the end of the day, it all depends on the Cabinet.

Handa saw the Miyagi raid as a glimpse of what might become more mainstream once the law was implemented, but the anti-base movement in Okinawa was already convinced the law would be used against them. If the government is truly concerned that foreign elements will spy on or interfere with matters vital to Japan’s security, it should develop a law that specifically sets out measures to address this perceived problem without affecting civil liberties. This law doesn’t really do that.

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