New `right to know' law intended to open Japan

Government, businesses gird for once-unthinkable degree of public scrutiny

May 12, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO -- When environmentalists in southern Japan started worrying that the chemical runoff from a proposed golf course would pollute an unspoiled island, they asked local officials for a copy of the environmental impact report on the envisioned development -- and were told that it was none of their business.

"In democratic countries like America, this may seem hard to believe, but the reason they gave was that ordinary people would not be able to understand the technical language," said attorney Ryuji Nishida. "They said it would only cause confusion."

Last month, Nishida won a court order requiring the Kagoshima prefectural government to hand over the environmental report. But until last week, Japan had no national law requiring disclosure of such information.

After a 20-year struggle by citizens groups, parliament has passed Japan's first freedom of information law, striking a blow for openness and accountability in what has been one of the world's most opaque democracies.

"I feel that we've finally joined the club of developed nations," said Yuichi Goto, a baker and citizen activist who has been crusading for financial accountability in government.

The information disclosure law for the first time gives Japanese -- and foreigners -- the right to request and receive details on anything from how the central government spends tax money to how it evaluates environmental hazards.

The need for the law is clear to those who say, for example, that Japan's banking disaster -- blamed as a major culprit in the Asian economic recession -- might have been addressed years earlier had the public and parliament been privy to what the mandarins at the Finance Ministry knew about the staggering dimensions of the banks' bad loans.

For more than a decade, Japan has had ordinances requiring local governments to disclose information to the public. But stiff opposition, first from Japan's long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party and then from its powerful bureaucracy, had delayed adoption of a national "right to know" law.

The compromise version of the law passed last week is weaker than reformers would have liked. Among other things, it will be two years before anyone is allowed to request information, to give ministries and agencies time to prepare for what is expected to be a wave of demands for documents.

But the mere anticipation of the law has begun to change the way Japan does business, with ministries opening Internet home pages and bureaucrats girding themselves for a previously unthinkable degree of public scrutiny.

"This will change the shape of this country to a great extent," said lawmaker Satsuki Eda, a former judge now with the opposition Democratic Party who helped negotiate the bill's final form.

Japan's modern government has been "a very closed system" since its inception in 1868, and despite the advent of democracy, "the democratic spirit hasn't been implanted," Eda said. "The information disclosure law may become a very, very strong weapon for the ordinary citizen to open the door of the secretive administration of this country."

Among the first to use the law will be members of parliament. Opposition parties have long complained that bureaucrats, who wield much of the real power in Japan, are so parsimonious with information that it is difficult even for lawmakers to evaluate and shape policy independently.

The bill won't be of immediate use either to scholars or to busybodies because diplomatic records, criminal records and other data deemed private will not be subject to disclosure. Japanese won't even be able to get access to their own medical records, said Mikio Akiyama, director of the Japan Civil Liberties Union.

The government will have great leeway to refuse to disclose information deemed damaging to national security or foreign relations. Japanese courts will not be permitted to review such material before ruling on its release, Akiyama said. And notes, diaries and datebooks of public officials probably won't be considered fair game.

Trade secrets also are generally protected from disclosure. But electronic data are specifically included. And, in a provision that Akiyama said goes further than U.S. law, information that has direct bearing on public health or safety must be released, whether disclosure infringes privacy, property or corporate secrecy rights.

"This is the first time in Japanese modern history that records are finally in the hands of the sovereign power of the people. It is radical," said Shohei Muta, who follows freedom of information issues at the nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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