Freedom of Information in Japan: Promoting Accountability in Government
Tens of thousands of information requests have been filed each year since Japan’s national information disclosure law took effect in 2001. Although transparency advocates point to several important shortcomings in the law, there is no doubt that it is a major milestone in the nation’s development as a democratic society. Requests filed by journalists, lawyers, activists and ordinary citizens have uncovered a wide range of information concerning public health, government expenditures, international relations and other issues of broad public interest.
Japan’s national information disclosure law provides anyone the right to demand information in the possession of national government agencies and government-owned entities. The government is ordinarily required to respond within thirty days, a standard that is met in the overwhelming majority of cases, and to disclose all relevant records except for items that come within one or more of six categories of exempt information. In addition, a national personal information protection law came into effect in 2005 which enables individuals to demand information concerning themselves.
More than twenty years of citizen advocacy preceded action by the national legislature. While government officials and leaders of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stoutly resisted calls for transparency, advocates were spurred on by revelations of bribery and other wrongdoing involving political leaders and by widespread injury due to defective food, pharmaceuticals and other consumer products. A major breakthrough occurred in 1993 when the LDP briefly lost power to a coalition of smaller parties that had already proposed information disclosure bills. This led to the appointment of an advisory committee that created the blueprint for a government bill that would become law.
In contrast to resistance at the national level, many local government leaders quickly embraced transparency as a central feature of good government. Responding to initial proposals by citizen groups and scholars in the second half of the 1970s, locally elected governors and mayors appointed study teams to review policy and draft disclosure ordinances. Legislative assemblies in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and elsewhere approved these rules by the mid-1980s. Experience under the new rules produced a significant body of administrative experience and judicial precedent invaluable to formulation of the national law.
One special feature of Japan’s system pioneered by local governments is the role played by “Information Disclosure and Personal Information Protection Review Boards” to hear administrative appeals. The Review Boards, comprised of retired officials, lawyers, academics and other prominent members of the community, provide dissatisfied requesters with an alternative to litigation.
Relatively few cases challenging information denials by national government agencies find their way to court. In recent years approximately twenty new information disclosure cases have been filed per year. By contrast, in each of the past three years more than 900 administrative appeals have been filed. (These numbers do not include suits and administrative appeals against local governments.)
Review Board appeals are popular because there are no fees and because the Boards have a duty to conduct their own investigations, including review of documents and other information at issue. Although appellants have the opportunity to file substantive briefs and make arguments before the Boards, they are not required to do so. Of greatest importance, the appeals frequently result in recommendations to release some or all of the information withheld and these recommendations are usually followed.
With the LDP defeat in parliamentary elections held in August 2009, Japan may be poised to take another big step toward more open government. It is widely expected that the victorious Democratic Party of Japan will amend the information disclosure law to remedy some obvious defects. Open government advocates have called for revisions to statutory language to reduce excessively broad categories of exempt information, to impose time limits on administrative appeals, to empower courts to examine government records in closed proceedings, and to establish an ombudsman’s office to respond to requester complaints.
 See Martin Fackler, “With Bold Stand, Japan Opposition Wins a Landslide,,” August 31, 2009http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/world/asia/31japan.html.
freedom of information: chronology
September 1979 — The Japan Civil Liberties Union, a non-government organization devoted to protecting civil liberties in Japan, publishes a draft information disclosure law which gathers widespread attention in Japan.
March 1980 — The “Citizens Movement for a Information Disclosure Law,” a network of citizen groups and individuals is formally launched. This organization would play a central role in lobbying for a national information disclosure law until the national parliament adopted such a statute in 1999.
October 1982 — The legislative assembly of Kanagawa Prefecture (which adjoins Tokyo and includes the port city of Yokohama) passes an information disclosure ordinance which would serve as the primary model for other local governments around the country.
January 1991 — Four opposition parties jointly propose a national information disclosure law. It is opposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and expires.
July 1993 — Following a parliamentary vote of no-confidence which brought down the LDP government, a coalition government led by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa takes office. Although the Hosokawa Cabinet is dissolved six months later, it takes action critical to moving open government legislation forward.
October 1994 — As one aspect of an ongoing administrative reform initiative, the Murayama Administration appoints a 13-member specialist committee led by a retired Supreme Court justice to study information disclosure and propose a draft statute.
November 1996 — The specialist committee delivers its final report, which is adopted as a blueprint for legislative action by the Hashimoto Cabinet the following month.
May 1999 — Japan’s first national information disclosure law is adopted by the parliament. It sets out an enforceable right of access to information in government hands, subject to six broad categories of exempt information.
April 2001 — The law takes effect and is met with thousands of applications filed at government agencies within the first weeks of operation.
August, 2009 — The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) sweeps the LDP from power in a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The DPJ platform includes progressive reform of the information disclosure law. The party presented a reform bill to the national parliament while in opposition in 2005 which was blocked by the ruling LDP. It is widely expected that the DPJ will pass an information disclosure law reform law.
National Information Disclosure Laws: One statute provides rights of access to information held by administrative agencies (organs) and a second statute provides a parallel right of access to information held by “independent administrative entities,” which are entities controlled by government.
* “Law Concerning Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs”: An English translation of the law is available here: http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/hourei/data/AAIHAO.pdf
Date of adoption: May 14th 1999
Date of entry into force: April 1st 2001
Date of latest amendments: October 21st 2005
* “Law Concerning Access to Information Held by Independent Administrative Entities”: The Japanese text of the law is available here: http://law.e-gov.go.jp/htmldata/H13/H13HO140.html
Date of adoption: November, 2001
Date of entry into force: October 1st, 2002
Date of latest amendments: 2005
Personal Information Protection Laws: Two statutes, one that applies to administrative agencies (organs) and a second that applies to independent administrative entities, provide requesters with the right to demand information in government files concerning themselves.
* “Law Concerning Protection of Personal Information Held by Administrative Organs”: An English translation of this statute is available here: http://bit.ly/9nF8T0
* “Law Concerning Protection of Personal Information Held by Independent Administrative Entities” The Japanese text of this statute is available here: http://law.e-gov.go.jp/htmldata/H15/H15HO059.html
Law Establishing the Information Disclosure and Personal Information Review Board: A separate statute establishes a review board to hear appeals of information denials under both the information disclosure and personal information protection systems. The Japanese text of this statute is available here: http://law.e-gov.go.jp/htmldata/H15/H15HO060.html
An Administrative Procedures Act establishes rules that govern administrative agencies generally in their handling of information requests. One provision of special importance is Article 8 of this statute, which requires that administrative agencies provide reasons denials off applications, including denials of information requests. An English translation of this statute is available here: http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/hourei/data/APA.pdf
The website maintained by the Information Disclosure and Personal Information Review Board is located here: http://www8.cao.go.jp/jyouhou/. This site provides access to thousands of recommendations issued by the Board since it was established in 2001.
The website maintained by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is located here:http://www.soumu.go.jp/main_sosiki/gyoukan/kanri/jyohokokai/index.html. This Ministry is charged with government-wide oversight of information disclosure and other information policy. It plays the central role in developing government information policy, including proposal of any new law or amendments to existing law.