Behind the scenes of the weekly anti-nuclear protests in front of the Prime Minister's Official Residence is a skirmish over whether police are taking excessive measures in controlling the crowds of protesters.
While police officials insist they are taking a "soft-handed approach" while placing a priority on protecting the safety of protesters, a volunteer group of lawyers has been formed to keep an eye on what the police are doing.
At the most recent demonstration held on Aug. 31, two men with armbands identifying themselves as members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department were using video cameras to film the crowds.
Kenichiro Kawasaki, 36, a lawyer, asked the two what they were doing. "Do you know that photographing ordinary citizens could be against the law?" he told them.
The two men stopped their taping and departed.
Kawasaki asked fellow lawyers to help keep track of how police were monitoring the anti-nuclear protests. So far, about 80 have joined the cause and since late June a few are at every weekly Friday night protest monitoring the police response.
According to the lawyers' group, one measure taken by the police to restrict passage on sidewalks and crossing the street was the lining up of metal barricades to clearly demarcate the sidewalk from the street. Some protest participants also had their cameras confiscated by police.
In early August, the lawyers' group issued a statement that said in part, "Freedom of expression is the lifeline of a democratic society and should not be interfered with by the exercise of police authority."
Lawyers said there appeared to be a relaxing of the restrictions on passage after the statement was released.
The issue that lawyers are now concerned about is the videotaping of protesters by the police.
"It could be a violation of one's portrait rights, and it could serve as a form of intimidation on the participants," Kawasaki said of the prohibition in Japan on using a person's picture without their consent. "There is a need to raise such concerns so that videotaping is not considered something that is allowed."
As for the videotaping of the crowds, police officials said it was meant to gain a clearer picture of the situation in order to more efficiently station police officers. The video images are fed directly into police headquarters to allow officials to decide how to deploy officers.
"We are taking a soft security approach and have no political meaning in our actions," one high-ranking police official said.
The protests in front of the Prime Minister's Official Residence have been conducted without official approval by police to hold them and use the roads. One reason applications were not made by organizers is that police would very likely reject them or ask that the location be moved because of the large number of central government offices in the vicinity and the possible disruption of normal state functions.
However, protests of all kinds have been held in the vicinity of the Diet and government offices until now without the submission of such applications.
One high-ranking official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said, "We cannot immediately take stricter measures just because the scale of the protests has become larger. We have to respect freedom of expression."
At the same time, police have taken a minimum level of measures to prevent accidents on the streets or head off other unexpected emergencies.
The lining up of metal barricades was meant to create space on the sidewalk for protesters, and police also directed pedestrian traffic at the entrances of subway stations and intersections to ensure a smooth flow of people.
According to police estimates, there were as many as 20,000 protesters at the height of the demonstrations. Now, the numbers have settled down to under 3,000. The decrease has contributed to fewer problems with the police.
When the numbers were at their highest levels in July, the metal barricades led to minor scuffles between police and protesters who were being pushed into the barricades. At that time, some protesters said the barricades were meant to intimidate participants and were an attempt to contain the demonstrations.
However, the declining number of protesters has led to a clearer division of roles.
On Aug. 31, police officers were found even guiding protesters to open spaces. That role had formerly been filled by volunteers from the organizers. While there were about 100 volunteers at the height of the demonstrations, organizers could only gather about 30 on Aug. 31, leading to some expressing their appreciation to the police for helping with the protest.
However, some of the participants were also dissatisfied at what they considered excessive acts by the police.
"With the police taking videos and specifying where we can stand, I felt intimidated," a 51-year-old woman said. "This is a peaceful protest movement."
(This article was written by Tsuyoshi Tamura and Takeo Yoshinaga.)
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