Political Infighting Endangers Japan Open Government Bill

24 February 2011

By Lawrence Repeta

Professor, Meiji University; Board Member, Information Clearinghouse Japan 

When the Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in 2009 parliamentary elections, the prospects for a progressive open government law in Japan were bright.

Now the DPJ government is poised to present a historic bill to the Diet that would reduce onerous fees, tighten up categories of exempt information, expedite administrative appeals, and adopt other measures to make Japan’s FOIA a more practical and responsive instrument.

But constant political squabbling has weakened the DPJ government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

A key question for open government supporters is “Will DPJ rule survive long enough to allow JFOIA revision to be passed into law?”

In the early days of Japan’s freedom of information movement, Professor Shimizu Hideo used to say “without a change of government, there will be no FOIA in Japan.”  He was right.  Japan had been ruled for decades by a single conservative political party (the “Liberal Democratic Party” or LDP) since that party was formed in 1955.  (The standard cliché was that that LDP is “neither liberal nor democratic.”)

The dominant party had no interest in opening government files to outsiders, so political leaders formed a solid defensive wall with the national bureaucracy.  FOI made no progress in Japan.

Then in 1993 intra-party disputes led to a vote of no-confidence in the Diet.  The government lost and the dominant party was temporarily removed from power. Professor Shimizu’s axiom held true.  During the interregnum while the LDP was forced to share power, a policymaking committee was charged with drafting a JFOIA.  The appointees included some real open government supporters and the committee succeeded in delivering a report that would serve as a blueprint for future legislation.

As Japan’s policymaking establishment scrambled for “administrative reform” (gyosei kaikaku)measures in the late 90s, the committee’s work was transformed into legislation that came into effect in 2001 as Japan’s national “information disclosure” law.  As suggested above, the JFOIA is not an ideal open government law.  Like the original U.S. FOIA, it requires reform to be an effective system. While the LDP remained in power, however, there was no hope for such reform.

Then the LDP was turned out in the election of August 2009 and the possibility of reform came alive.  Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s first DPJ Prime Minister, created a new portfolio for a minister charged with “administrative revitalization.”

His minister appointed a FOIA reform committee which delivered another legislative blueprint in August 2010.

A bill based on this plan is scheduled to be presented to the Diet in March of this year.  If the DPJ remains in power, we can expect the bill to become law by the end of summer.  If, however a split in the party or other events lead to a return to LDP rule, it is likely that this chance for JFOIA reform will be lost.

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