Japan enacts strict state secrets law despite protests

TOKYO - Japan enacted a state-secrets law toughening penalties for leaks on Friday, despite public protests and criticism that it will muzzle the media and help cover up official misdeeds.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, keen to beef up Japan's security amid rising concerns about China's military assertiveness, has said the law is needed to the smooth operation of a new National Securities Council and to persuade foreign countries such as close ally the United States to share intelligence.

Media, publishers, lawyers and even entertainers have denounced the bill, which drastically expands the definition of state secrets and for some has echoes of Japan's harsh authoritarian regime before and during World War Two.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would make efforts to explain the law and win the country's trust before the measure takes effect.

"We think that this law is extremely important for our connections with our allies and other foreign nations," he said. "I believe that people will come to understand."

The passing of the law coincides with a worldwide debate on secrecy after former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents and a US Army private leaked information to anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.

The bill, previously approved by parliament's lower house, was enacted into law in a raucous, late-night session by the upper chamber after a series of delaying tactics by opposition parties.

Under the law, public servants or others with access to state secrets could be jailed for up to 10 years for leaking them. Journalists and others in the private sector convicted of encouraging such leaks could get up to five years if they use "grossly inappropriate" means to solicit the information.

Thousands of protesters, bundled in coats against the chill, gathered across from the parliament building, chanting "Shame on you, Shinzo Abe." Some carried candles.

"This was really rushed through too fast and you have to wonder why the hurry now," one man told public broadcaster NHK. "I think we'll really regret this later."

In the days before passage, the government scrambled to address complaints that there was no independent review process to ensure the law was not abused by bureaucrats seeking to hide mistakes or misdeeds - including suggesting an oversight body whose members would require parliamentary approval.

But the proposed mechanisms are not mandated by the law and critics said they failed to remove concerns that the oversight will not be truly independent.

Top officials in all ministries will be able to designate special state secrets in four categories - defence, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter espionage - that can be kept secret for up to 60 years and in some cases longer.

Crowds of demonstrators gathered daily outside parliament to protest the law.

Passing of the law could dent Abe's popularity, which has already slipped to just below 50 per cent in one poll this week from early highs of around 60 per cent.

Even so, some political experts said the damage was unlikely to be long-lasting. More critical for voters is whether his "Abenomics" prescription of hyper-easy monetary policy and fiscal spending keeps the economy afloat.