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Japan recently enacted a tough new law to protect state secrets. It was considered a victory for Washington, which had long urged its Asian ally to tighten control over classified information. But as Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, the legislation has triggered widespread outrage in Japan and undermined the popularity of Prime Minister Abe.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Earlier this month, the normally sedate Japanese parliament disintegrated into chaos. Opposition party members screamed, pounded the speaker's desk and flapped papers in his face - all in vain. In a shocking display of brute force, Shinzo Abe's ruling party railroaded into law a sweeping, vague and hastily-drafted secrets protection bill.

SHINZO ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: If information about our jet fighters or warships were leaked, it would endanger Japan, Prime Minister Abe said later in a televised address. To protect lives, we must prevent intelligence from reaching terrorists. To secure life and property, we had to enact the secrecy law as quickly as possible.

ABE: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: The penalties for violators are harsh - 10 years in prison for civil servants who leak classified information; five years for citizens convicted of abetting leaks. The law covers defense, diplomacy, counterterrorism and counter-intelligence but empowers bureaucrats not just in defense, but throughout government to lock away documents for up to 60 years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Antagonism to Abe's secrecy law is almost universal. A recent protest drew 10,000 demonstrators. Over 80 percent of people in a recent poll called for dumping or rewriting it. Media and legal groups have also denounced the legislation, especially after revelations about government mismanagement associated with the Fukushima nuclear accident. While many Japanese see the official secrets law as a massive step backward for civil liberties in Japan, Washington is celebrating. U.S. officials and the American military have long demanded Japan adopt American-style regulations to allow the seamless sharing of intelligence.

(APPLAUSE)

CRAFT: Caroline Kennedy added her endorsement for a Japanese secrets law, in one of her first public statements as ambassador to Japan.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: We support the evolution of Japan's security policies as they create a new national security strategy, establish a national security council, and take steps to protect national security secrets.

MICHAEL CUCEK: This bill is really only for the U.S. - only for U.S. consumption.

CRAFT: Michael Cucek, a research associate with MIT, says the law is overkill.

CUCEK: The real irony of the whole thing is that Japan's media and Japan's government officials have been excellent at protecting secrets, and in fact, overprotective of secrets in a historical view. We have no people who gave up secrets for money or for fame in Japanese history.

CRAFT: Government transparency advocates, like Meiji University law professor Lawrence Repeta say the impact on journalism and whistleblowing in Japan could be calamitous because Japan's safeguards on freedom of information are weak.

LAWRENCE REPETA: In the United States, we have a really well-developed legal history of the importance of a free press, of the role of the courts in protecting the press from excessive government potential interference. In Japan, we do not have any of that kind of history.

CRAFT: Japanese courts have never ruled in favor of the press in cases of journalistic freedom. The lone precedent, a Supreme Court case of 1978, upheld the conviction of a journalist on national security grounds, although the information he published had been declassified in the U.S. With relations deteriorating between Japan and its neighbors, legal scholar Repeta argues giving Tokyo broad powers to conceal its actions is not in Washington's best interests.

REPETA: By creating this very broad secrecy power in Japan, we have increased the risk of military confrontation and risk to the United States. American policy, as I understand it, is to promote democratic, transparent government. This law does precisely the opposite. It creates risks that were not there before.

CRAFT: The new secrecy law and the recent creation of a U.S.-style National Security Council are just the first steps in Prime Minister Abe's nationalist agenda. Next year, he seeks to lift Japan's ban on collective defense, allowing Japanese troops to engage in combat overseas with allied forces. With his party controlling both houses of parliament, there are few obstacles in his way. For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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