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Japanese tradition that violates privacy rights

by Philip Brasor

The current Self-Defense Forces scandal provides a glimpse into the mechanics of how such stories get reported. It appears that an insider at the Maritime Self-Defense Force sent information to the Mainichi Shimbun about personal data that an officer was compiling on people who made requests to the MSDF for information disclosure.

The Mainichi was the first newspaper to report the story, in its morning edition of May 28. All the other newspapers reported the same news in their afternoon editions of the same day, though they didn’t specifically state that the Mainichi broke the story, only that such news “had been reported.”

Armed with the personal data list itself, the Mainichi called officials in the SDF and the Defense Agency (as well as some people on the list, who were understandably shocked to find themselves there) and asked them about it. Faced with irrefutable proof, none of the officials could deny the data-gathering charge; instead they called a press conference. The scandal took on a life of its own and grew accordingly, leading to calls for the resignation of Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani.

Since the evidence of wrongdoing was essentially presented to the Mainichi, the scandal isn’t strictly a scoop, but nevertheless it’s a fine example of the news media fulfilling its mandate as the people’s watchdog.

Or is it? For sure, what the SDF did was unethical and, according to a privacy law enacted in 1988, clearly illegal. However, compiling private data about individuals for use within a government organization is already common practice in Japan. In fact, such information can be accessed without too much trouble by anyone in or out of the government.

The privacy act that was passed in 1988 specifically restricts the use of “electronic personal data” by the authorities. The important word here is “electronic.” Actually, the authorities already have all the personal information they need about citizens in the family registration (koseki) system; it’s just that all of the information is written down on good old-fashioned paper.

The koseki system is not a conspiracy or an underground cabal. It is so pervasive in the life of the average Japanese person that no one, including the media, considers its maintenance and utilization a violation of individual privacy. Most Japanese, in fact, become confused when you tell them that Japan is the only country in the world that has such a system. (Actually, so does South Korea, but their family registration system was foisted on them by the Japanese, anyway.) They can’t imagine a world without it.

The family register not only includes birth and marriage information, but also indicates whether or not one’s parents were married and whether or not one has been divorced. All family-related events are recorded therein. (It says something about the document’s image that many people mistakenly believe that even bankruptcies are recorded.) And through the register, anyone can learn about an individual’s family background, which is why copies are often requested by prospective employers or parents-in-law. Since the mid-’80s, individual koseki have not been open to the public, but there are enough loopholes in the system to give someone who really wants to see one the opportunity to do so.

As discussed in this column on May 12, the media for the past several months have been devoting a lot of space and time to fighting the so-called privacy bills that the Liberal Democratic Party is determined to pass during the current Diet session. The media rightly feel that the bills will limit their ability to gather news and have produced reams of editorials dissecting and analyzing the bills within the more general issue of individual privacy.

One of the pundits the media turned to is writer Bunmei Sato, who is an expert on the koseki system. Sato has for many years been trying to alert the public and the media to the fundamental dangers of the system. But while the media use Sato for their own purposes in making a case against the privacy bills, they are totally deaf to his calls for tearing down the koseki system. Even foreign human-rights organizations have condemned the system, but for some reason the media never report it that way. They will spotlight things like institutional discrimination against children born out of wedlock, or the law that says married people must have the same surname. But they fail to mention that these matters are mandated in the koseki system, and therefore cannot be rectified or otherwise changed without eliminating the system itself.

A fair indication of how priorities have become twisted is the controversy over the so-called sebango, which is the term being used for the number system that goes into effect when the resident registration system becomes computerized later this year. Sebango literally means “back number,” and refers to the numerals on the uniforms of baseball players. Under the system, each citizen will be given a numeral, much like America’s social-security number.

Some within the media and the government have characterized the sebango system as tantamount to Big Brotherhood. That’s because people have been conditioned to equate personal ID numbers with authoritarian intentions. But a number ain’t nothing but a number.

The koseki system is much more, and it is considered as Japanese as cherry blossoms. One of the reasons given for not doing away with the system is that it is somehow linked to Japanese identity: hometown, family, a line of ancestors stretching back in time. In truth, the system is relatively new. It was put in place during the Meiji Restoration as a means of keeping tabs on the newly enfranchised commoners. It is the emperor system in miniature.

In that light, however inappropriately the SDF acted in making its lists, it was only doing what comes naturally.