By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Waving banners and banging tambourines, hundreds of Japanese took to the streets of Tokyo to protest a strict new state-secrets law which took effect on Wednesday that critics charge will help conceal government misdeeds and limit press freedom.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says the law, which was passed a year ago amid protests, is essential to convince allies led by the United States to share intelligence with Japan.
Critics counter that whistleblowing on government misdeeds will be chilled and Reporters Without Borders has called the law "an unprecedented threat to freedom of information".
"This terrible law must be revoked, but at least if we keep on protesting the government won't be able to do whatever it wants," said Yumi Nakagomi, 59, one of several hundred people braving frigid winds to gather near Abe's office on Wednesday.
"If we give up on this Japan will end up just like Russia, or China, or North Korea."
The law mandates prison terms of up to 10 years for public servants or others leaking state secrets, while journalists and others who encourage such leaks could be imprisoned for five years. Kyodo news agency said that some 460,000 documents would be affected immediately.
"The law says that the act of leaking itself is bad no matter what the circumstances," said Yukiko Miki at Clearinghouse Japan, a non-profit organization that promotes information disclosure.
Two watchdog groups are to oversee implementation of the law, one directed by the prime minister.
"By applying the law practically and properly, explaining carefully how it is being applied, and reporting to parliament and making public how it is being enforced, the government plans to show clearly that the people's right to know will not be infringed on," said Hiroshige Seko, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, on Wednesday.
Critics say Abe's government failed to keep a pledge to win public understanding of the law by not fully explaining how it will be implemented. The Cabinet Office solicited public comment for a month from late July until late August - during prime summer vacation time.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations called for revoking the law and holding national debates on the subject.
The uncertainty about what the government will deem a secret was already having a repressive effect, Miki said. Her office has received calls from bloggers worried about whether they should delete posts to avoid prosecution.
"This law restricts the public's right to know," said Tomoki Hiyama, one of roughly 800 people at a protest on Tuesday night.
"It's full of ambiguity and will take us back to the 'public peace and order' controls of World War Two."
(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)