Japan: Threats to freedom of speech and freedom to protest

On the 16th of January a group of protesters gathered outside Shinjuku station (one of the most crowded stations in Tokyo) to denounce Prime Minister Aso and his cabinet. While others in the group were distributing handbills to passersby, the leader of the Executive Committee “Overthrow Asō ! Down with the Cabinet!” (「麻生を倒せ!ないかくだとう」実行委員会) [ja], with a microphone in one hand, made a public speech denouncing the inability of the government to tackle the problems that afflict contemporary Japan (like the increasingly unstable economy, the lack of jobs and social differences between the poor and the rich classes) and blaming the Japanese political system thanks to which, for decades, sons and nephews of political men have had seats reserved for them in the National Diet.

Thanks to a video that documents events as they happened, it is possible to see the exact sequence of facts, with comments by some bloggers included below:

For the record, and to help readers better understand, here is a short recap of the scenes shown in the video [in Japanese only]:

  • A police man, from the Shinjuku Police Department, begs the cameraman to film everything and appeals to the viewers to always have an official permit for using roads, in case of demonstrations.
  • The leader of the Executive Committee starts giving his speech. Others in the group start distributing the handbills.
  • A woman wearing a leopard-skin coat, who is taking a record of the demo, is framed on video. She makes herself know as Sergeant Nagashima of the Traffic Division of the Shinjuku Police Department. She says that distributing handbills without a permit violates the Road Traffic Law. The leader of the group reminds her about rights written in the Constitution, but she insists, saying that this is a different matter.
  • Another man in civilian clothes appears. He says that he is about to call 110 but as soon as he and Serg. Nagashima go away, other policemen appear. The subtitle suggests that they were probably already there beforehand, ready to intervene.
  • A confrontation begins between the first policeman who appeared in the video and the protesters. The policeman refers to the Road Traffic Law and demands an official request. The demonstrators tell him that until that day no permit was necessary to distribute handbills in the street.
  • The leader of the Committee takes the microphone and explains what is happening to people passing by: the police says that without their permit they cannot distribute handbills but the protesters’ purpose was to exercise their right of freedom of speech and denounces the wrongs of Aso’s cabinet. He also invites people to look at the number of policemen and patrol cars called on to stop them, and to consider the lack of freedom in their country.
  • The first policeman issues an order to surround the protesters, while the policewoman threatens them to issue an arrest warrant if they don’t suspend the distribution of handbills.

A blogger at spiders_nest, the official blog of the Freeter Union [see here for the meaning of the term “freeter”], who participated in the demonstration, saw with his eyes what happened and assures readers that protesters did not violate any law:


I participated in the distribution of flyers at the square outside the South-East Exit of Shinjuku Station, organized by the Executive Committee of [the movement] “Overthrow Asō ! Down with the Prime Minister!”
Then this woman with a leopard-skin coat claiming to be from the Shinjuku Police Department tells us that “Permission from the police is required to distribute handbills or make public speeches with a microphone”. And when we tried to say that “we've never heard of any permission being needed”, another policeman started calling 110, and 4 patrol cars with 30 policemen arrived. At that point the speech was inevitably suspended.
After that I did some research about article 77 of the Road Traffic Law and it turned out that in some cases, permission for the use of a public street is needed, but nowhere was there mention of any permission being needed from police for the distribution of handbills or for the use of a microphone. It’s a lie.

Tzetze harshly criticizes the abuse of power by the police and statements by the police which sound like threats to freedom of expression, unacceptable in a democratic country:


“Be sure to film carefully the moment when the police carry out ‘(enforce?) their duties'!” “If you distribute [handbills] here now, I will arrest you. ‘Cause we have the authority to do that” “[We're doing this] to secure freedom of speech, to preserve the peace, the peace of the Japanese people”


Analyzing these violent words, it’s easy to understand the message that the police are trying to communicate: “As we work for the public service, we can arrest you whenever we like! We are the authority so no matter whether it's legal or not, we can arrest you!” Besides which, they claim that it was in the name of “preserving the peace”. Which is even worse.


Anyway, let's start from the basics. We can say that generally, there is no need for a permit to distribute handbills. Even if the police woman says, “It is illegal to distribute handbills without a permit”, that rule applies only to “cases in which [the distribution] represents a serious obstacle to road traffic”. This is stated in the Road Traffic Law. By the way, as the bills distribution was held within the territory of the [train] station, the Railway Management Law applies instead, and in that case as long as [the action] does not infringe on the ordinary business of the railway, freedom is the rule.

Similarly, noiz tried to illuminate the causes of the police intervention:

動画の冒頭に情宣活動を録画する警察官が出てくるが、こちらは交通課だとなのっている。しかし非番でもあ るまいし、わざわざ私服で登場して情報活動をこなしつつ、それがバレてつめられると手際よく別の警官が応援要請ときたもんだ。おまけに要請をうけて先頭 きってとびこんできたのが警備課(の公安)って、あらかじめ準備していたとしか考えられない。

At the beginning of the movie, a police woman filming the protest appears, saying that she belongs to the Traffic Division. Of course she couldn't be off-duty, and then when, while going out of her way in plain clothes to gather information, she was discovered, another policeman suddenly comes along and demands a “request for public speech”. In addiction, the fact that they demanded the request [for public speech], and then suddenly rushed into the group [of protesters to stop them], can lead only to one possible conclusion: that the Division for the Safeguard of Public Security was already prepared in advance [to intervene].

要するに、「政治的なもの」を狙い撃ちにして封じ込めようとする警察(新宿署)の意図があったということだ。事前に呼びかけを公表して街宣活動をおこなえば、情勢によっては公安警察がはりこんで面割りしてるってこともあるにはあるが、交通課が警備課よんで逮捕恫喝をかけながら取り締るなんて尋常じゃない。死に体の麻生政権の打倒をよびかける行動 だったから? それとも行動呼びかけの面々がきにくわないから?


In other words, the purpose of the police (the Shinjuku Police Department) was to confine [the demonstrators], making the “political issue” a target. When you organize a city campaign and announce it beforehand, it is possible, depending on the circumstances, that the Division for the Safeguard of Public Security watches over what happens and intervenes. It is not often that the Traffic Division calls the Patrol Division and takes action against [protesters] while threatening to issue an arrest warrant. Was it because the protest was meant to overthrow the lame-duck government Asō in power? Or was it because every incitation to protest is in itself disagreeable?

What on earth is the Shinjuku Police Department scared of?

Kick Aso Out!
「土足OK – KICK ASO OUT!」_Poster of the “Defeat Aso! Street Demonstration” that took place in Tokyo on the 8th of Feb. (by Illcommonz)

On the 27th of January, the Executive Committee posted on its official blog a letter addressed to the Shinjuku Police Department, demanding a clear explanation in legal terms of the action that it took on the day of the protest and that led to the forced termination of the demonstration.

① 日本国憲法は第21条において「集会、結社及び言論、出版その他一切の表現の自由は、これを保障する」と定めると同時に、同99条において「天皇又は摂政 及び国務大臣、国会議員、裁判官その他の公務員は、この憲法を尊重し擁護する義務を負ふ」としていますが、この条文をご承知でしょうか。

① Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution establishes that “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed” and, according to article 99 of the same Constitution,“The Emperor or the Regent as well as Ministers of State, members of the Diet, judges, and all other public officials have the obligation to respect and uphold this Constitution”. Do you know this text?

② 新宿署では、その職務を遂行する際に人々の表現の自由を妨げることのないように署員に何をどのように周知しているでしょうか。そのための具体的な研修プログラムはあるでしょうか。

② In the Shinjuku Police Department, do the officials know that when they perform their duties they shouldn't act in such a way as to hinder the people's freedom of expression? Do you have any specific training program for that?

③ 長島警部補は新宿署管内で歩道上でのビラ配布に警察署長の許可がいると発言していますが、新宿署管内でのビラ配布は許可制なのでしょうか。また許可制となったのならば、それはいつからのことでしょうか。その法令上の根拠を教示下さい。

③ Sergeant Nagashima said that within the area under the jurisdiction of the Shinjuku Police Department, a permit released by the Chief of the Department is required to distribute handbills. But is any permit system really applied within the area under the jurisdiction of the Shinjuku Police Department? If it is, from when is it applied? Please explain to us the legal grounds for this.

④ 新宿署員にビラ配布の中止を命じる権限はあるのでしょうか。それはいつから与えられたのでしょうか。その法令上の根拠を教示下さい。

④ Do the officials of the Shinjuku Police Department have the authority to demand the suspension of handbill distribution? Since when have they had [that authority]? Please explain to us the legal grounds for this.

⑤ 道路交通法は第七十七条において道路の使用の許可を受ける必要がある場合として、計四号の行為をあげていますが、歩道上での通行人へのビラの配布はどの号にあたるとお考えでしょうか。

⑤ In article 77 of the Road Traffic Law, four cases are listed in which permission is required for use of a road, but distribution of handbills does not appear under any of those.

⑥ 道路交通法第七十七条四号に定める「一般交通に著しい影響を及ぼすような通行の形態若しくは方法により道路を使用する行為」はどのような行為を想定したものと解釈しているのでしょうか。

⑥ What do you interpret “use of roads which considerably affects general traffic”, as specified in article 77 of the Road Traffic Law, to mean?


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