Public right to know vs. secret pact

Suit seeks to get government to admit reality

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

Fumitomo Fujita was excited when major newspapers protested the April 1972 arrest of a reporter who stood accused of soliciting a Foreign Ministry secretary for classified documents on Japan-U.S. talks over the reversion of Okinawa.

“I thought it was amazing that the media was challenging the government,” Fujita, a political reporter in his early 30s at TV Asahi at the time, said of Takichi Nishiyama’s arrest for allegedly violating the National Public Services Law.

“I became aware at that time that we are working to contribute to the people’s right to know.”

Nishiyama, a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, was trying to use the documents to reveal a secret bilateral agreement on Japan’s cost burdens for the reversion.

The criminal investigation into Nishiyama “reminded me of the Pentagon Papers incident,” Fujita, 69, said, referring to the legal battle involving the U.S. government and press over confidential papers about Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The arrests of Nishiyama and the female ministry secretary “are a challenge to the freedom of the press,” the managing editor at the Mainichi wrote on its front page on April 5, 1972, while other major papers carried headlines such as “Don’t violate the ‘right to know.’ “

The press, however, eventually backed away from trying to dig up the truth behind the diplomatic talks and protect the public’s right to know after Nishiyama’s indictment noted he “secretly had an affair” with the secretary and urged her to bring him the documents. Both Nishiyama and the bureaucrat ultimately received suspended prison terms.

“We, the media, had to pursue the issue that the government lied to the public over the negotiation process behind the reversion, but we were completely defeated by the ‘secret affair’ indictment’ ” that shifted the focus to a sex scandal, Fujita said. “Since then, I have been reproaching myself, telling myself, ‘I could have done something at that time.’ “

Okinawa was returned to Japan one month after the indictment.

Fujita, now a lecturer at Rikkyo University, wants to shed his longtime guilt. He joined a group that filed a lawsuit in March demanding the disclosure of documents they say confirm the existence of the secret bilateral pact.

The documents, compiled between 1969 and 1971, include one that indicates Japan secretly shouldered $4 million in costs the United States was supposed to pay to restore Okinawa land from military use back to farmland.

The papers were declassified by the U.S. government earlier this decade, but Japan has consistently denied the existence of the secret pact.

The group consists of 25 plaintiffs, including Nishiyama, 77, who remained silent after being convicted.

“I feel partly to blame for the breakdown of the media that failed to pursue the issue of the secret agreement,” Fujita noted in the group’s complaint.

Hiroshi Matsuda, 79, is another plaintiff who has been chagrined at the halfhearted media campaign to protect the people’s right to know.

“We were cheated by the authorities, while I saw the wrongness in what they had done (in the indictment),” said the former reporter for the Nikkei business daily who covered the relationship between the media and authorities. A love affair and Nishiyama’s news-gathering activities “are in different spheres, but the media mixed them up.”

It was natural for him to join the plaintiffs’ group, because he believes “the lawsuit will lead to protect our right to know, although it is a duty the media should primarily address,” said Matsuda, who has also been a Ritsumeikan University professor. “Sometimes the media inevitably violate laws (to ensure) the people’s right to know.”

The court proceedings in the Tokyo District Court started in mid-June with the government saying it does not possess the documents, arguing, “In general, documents compiled in the process of bilateral or multilateral negotiations are sometimes abandoned later if they are not the final agreement.”

Presiding Judge Norihiko Sugihara, however, urged the government to provide a better explanation.

“It is understandable that the plaintiffs are arguing that the Japanese side must possess the documents as the U.S. side has them,” Sugihara said. “I expect the government to provide rational explanations if it says it does not possess them.

“I also expect the government to clarify its own stance on the U.S. documents if it insists that the ‘secret pact’ does not exist.”

The judge urged the plaintiffs to bring to the court Bunroku Yoshino, a former diplomat who was a key negotiator in the reversion talks who confirmed the existence of the secret pact in media interviews.

“The court would like to hear what Mr. Yoshino has to say, as the existence or absence of the documents is the main point of dispute in this suit,” Sugihara said.

“I was in high spirits when I heard the remarks of the judge,” plaintiff Kazuyoshi Kitaoka said. “Not only I, but also other plaintiffs and our lawyers, felt exuberant in the court” due to Sugihara’s understanding of their arguments.

Kitaoka, 67, worked as a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter before becoming a secretary to Japan Socialist Party lawmaker Takahiro Yokomichi, who took up the secret pact in the Diet and is now vice speaker of the House of Representatives.

Nishiyama’s conviction was an affront to the raison d’etre of news reporters and “I could not stand it,” said Kitaoka, who was a Los Angeles-based journalist for 27 years following the Nishiyama incident.

Nishiyama himself sued in 2005 to prove the existence of the secret pact, claiming his career as a reporter was ruined by the conviction, but the Supreme Court rejected his suit last September without noting whether the pact existed.

“It has left a bad taste in my mouth that the media could not protect Mr. Nishiyama and failed to fully pursue the secret pact issue,” said Kitaoka, now a Nihon University professor. “Our lawsuit must be the last chance to uncover the government’s lie.”