Japan: Greater Openness or Greater Secrecy?

16 November 2011

By Lawrence Repeta

Repeta is a professor of law, Meiji University, Japan, and a member of the board of directors of Information Clearinghouse Japan (the leading Japanese NGO advocating and monitoring Japan’s information access laws)

The Japan Times recently carried an editorial that neatly summarized some basic information policy issues facing the country’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration. 

As noted in previous posts, the DPJ scored a historic victory in national elections held in August 2009, upsetting the conservative party that had ruled Japan for a nearly unbroken stretch going back to 1955.

Frequently described as a “center-left” party in the western news media, at different times DPJ leaders have advocated more generous social support programs, granting more autonomy to local governments, and even greater independence from the United States in defense policy.  Faced with the crude realities of governing and the most serious natural disaster in the nation’s recent history (and the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl), however, party leaders have dithered and backtracked.  The constant turmoil has led to continuation of the pre-existing practice of revolving-door prime ministers.  We’ve had three within two years.

What about information policy?  The DPJ has advocated reform of the country’s flawed “information disclosure” (joho kokai) law at least since 2005, when it formally submitted a revision bill to parliament.  That bill died when the ruling LDP refused to take action.

But now the DPJ itself has held power for two years.  It has conducted hearings and drafted a new bill (watered down from the 2005 version) but, like the 2005 story, so far parliament has taken no action.

Meanwhile, as information disclosure reform has gathered dust, internal government committees have been busy laying the groundwork for a new state secrets bill.  As described by the Japan Times, this proposal would impose criminal penalties of up to five years imprisonment on anyone who leaks designated information that would affect “national security, diplomacy and the maintenance of public safety and order.” Details remain unclear and subject to debate within the government.  However such a law might be worded, a 1978 Supreme Court precedent stands as a warning to journalists on the national security (and “public safety and order”) beat.  In that case, the Court imposed a guilty verdict on a newspaper reporter for the crime of “inducing” a government official to improperly disclose government secrets.

The 2009 election brought a change of power, but has there been a change in information policy?  It’s too early for open government supporters to give up.  There are several weeks left in the current parliamentary session.  The government information disclosure bill could still make it to the finish line.  And the new secrets proposal is still an internal discussion.

But we have been through this exercise before.  When advocates propose open government reforms, bureaucrats, establishment politicians and news media supporters respond that the real problem is not too little disclosure, but too much. The nation’s enemies are just outside the gates.  We must be more vigilant!  The result of this clash of ideas tends to be inaction.

According to the JT, the government committee proposing greater controls says that “the purpose of the bill is to facilitate cooperation with foreign countries in sharing information.”  Foreign countries?  We know there is only one country significant in this regard.  Its headquarters is found in a five-sided building located on the shore of the Potomac River.*

*    Washington pressure on Japan to adopt stricter rules on security information would parallel its efforts elsewhere.  Alasdair Roberts has reported U.S. insistence that NATO allies do so as a condition to participation in the alliance.  See, e.g., Chapter 6 of his 2006 work “Blacked Out —  Government Secrecy  in the Information Age,” (Cambridge University Press).

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