The Birth of the Freedom of Information Act in Japan: Kanagawa 1982

8 September 2003

Lawrence Repeta of the Information Clearinghouse Japan board of directors reports on the 20-year experience with freedom of information in Kanagawa prefecture — the most influential early Japanese access law, passed in 1982, two decades before the national FOI law.

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The Birth of the Freedom of Information Act in Japan: Kanagawa 1982 (MIT Japan Program Working Paper 03-01)
By Lawrence Repeta

“It is necessary. It is unavoidable. Moreover, it is possible. However, it is also a big project.”
Kazuji Nagasu, Governor of Kanagawa Prefecture, July 28, 1980. Statement to prefectural employees regarding the proposed Freedom of Information Law for Kanagawa

Ahead of Its Time

In a recent article titled “The World’s Right to Know,” Thomas Blanton wrote that “the international freedom-of-information movement stands on the verge of changing the definition of democratic governance. The movement is creating a new norm, a new expectation, and a new threshold requirement for any government to be considered a democracy.” The basis for this sweeping claim was Blanton’s research showing that, in the decade following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, twenty-six countries “from Japan to Bulgaria, Ireland to South Africa, and Thailand to Great Britain” had enacted statutes guaranteeing their citizens` right of access to government information.

Blanton’s declaration that freedom of information (“FOI”) would become a “new threshold requirement” for democratic government may sound extravagant, but as described below, this is an excellent description of the demand pressed by an extraordinary collaboration of citizen activists and reform-minded local officials who designed Japan`s first FOIAs in the late 1970’s early 1980`s. In his first campaign to become governor of Kanagawa in 1975, Kazuji Nagasu called for a “revolution in the offices of government” (kancho kakumei ) featuring citizen participation in administration. As this “revolution” rolled forward in succeeding years and he directed the creation of the Kanagawa freedom of information system, Nagasu`s speeches would carry the Brandeisian summation that, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and other declarations common to open government advocates around the world.

A freedom of information act (“FOIA”) is a law that provides citizens with an enforceable right of access to information in the possession or control of government. Such a system constitutes a direct threat to authoritarian or excessively secretive regimes by exposing arbitrary or improper action to public scrutiny. The Kanagawa FOI ordinance was enacted in 1982, a full decade before the global movement of the ’90s. It was also far in advance of action by Japan’s own national government. On April 1, 2003, as Kanagawa began celebrating the twentieth year of its FOIA, Japan’s national law was but a toddler, beginning its third year. In fact, the Kanagawa ordinance had already embarked on a second generation, following a thorough revision expanding the number of articles from 19 to 40, which took effect on April 1, 2000.

At the time Kanagawa and other progressive local governments in Japan created their systems, fewer than ten countries in the world had adopted freedom of information laws. Prominent British Commonwealth countries were acting at exactly the same time. Australia had only adopted its disclosure law that year and Canada and New Zealand were a year behind.

Why did Kanagawa act so early in the global FOI movement and so far in advance of Japan’s national government? The answer to these questions provides some interesting insights into the structure of democratic government.

Download the entire report in Adobe PDF format:
The Birth of the Freedom of Information Act in Japan: Kanagawa 1982 (214 KB)

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