Proving a secret that is no longer a secret to preserve democracy

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

For the plaintiffs, it has been a long struggle to set the record straight and to ensure democracy prevails.

In a lawsuit seeking the disclosure of diplomatic papers, 25 people aim to prove the government has been lying by consistently denying the existence of a secret pact with the United States on the cost burden of the 1972 reversion of Okinawa.

“It’s not permissible for the authorities to shield historical facts,” said Ikuko Komachiya, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “Through this suit, with the aim of achieving democracy, we have questioned whether our right to know is fully guaranteed.”

The plaintiffs, who include scholars and journalists, are demanding the government disclose three diplomatic documents compiled between 1969 and 1971 that they say indicate the existence of the secret agreement.

The papers, which were declassified by the U.S. government in the early 2000s, include one indicating Japan secretly shouldered $4 million that Washington was supposed to pay to restore farmland in Okinawa that had been used by U.S. forces.

“We presented the copies of the declassified documents, which carry the initials of the then Japanese negotiator, to the court” so the government can no longer deny the pact’s existence, Komachiya said.

In effect, the plaintiffs are seeking the disclosure of documents they already have, making the lawsuit “quite unique,” she said.

The lead negotiator, Bunroku Yoshino, told the court in December that the initials on the paper were his and confirmed the existence of the secret agreement. Now 91, Yoshino was chief of the Foreign Ministry’s American Bureau at the time.

The Tokyo District Court heard the closing arguments in the case Tuesday. The suit at a delicate time: Japan-U.S. ties have been strained over the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, where emotions are running high over what to do about U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

“Policies for crafting future Japan-U.S. relations, including those involving Okinawa, should be compiled under a transparent negotiation system” so they can be put on the right track even if the government makes mistakes in drawing up and implementing them, Keiichi Katsura, head of the plaintiffs, argued in court.

He is a lecturer on journalism at Rissho University and a former official of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association.

Moriteru Arasaki, another plaintiff and former head of Okinawa University, said in his statement to the court that his prefecture has been placed under an excessive burden by hosting more than 70 percent of U.S. forces under the Japan-U.S. security treaty and Japan’s dependent relationship with the United States.

If the existence of a secret pact is proved, it would lead to clarifying how Okinawa was left with such hardships and “it would also enable us to shape a better future,” said Arasaki, now a professor emeritus at the university specializing in modern Okinawan history.

The government claimed it has not been able to find the papers in question through its searches, and if they ever existed they may have been disposed of.

The plaintiffs countered that the government should bear the burden of proof in showing it does not possess the diplomatic papers, and that if it had really disposed of them it would go against proper document control procedures.

The lawsuit, filed last March, was launched after the Supreme Court rejected a damages suit filed by Takichi Nishiyama, a former Mainichi Shimbun reporter who was convicted in the 1970s over the way he gathered information while investigating the negotiation process behind the Okinawa reversion.

He had solicited a Foreign Ministry secretary for classified documents on the bilateral talks, and his conviction for violating the National Public Services Law raised concerns about infringement of the public’s right to know.

With the aim of proving the existence of the secret pact, Nishiyama, 78, argued in his lawsuit that his career as a reporter was ruined by the conviction, but the top court dismissed the case in September 2008 without referring to whether the pact existed.

Nishiyama joined the plaintiffs in the latest information disclosure suit. The district court is expected to issue its ruling April 9.

“I hope this lawsuit will achieve democracy in this country through information disclosure,” Nishiyama said after the final court session this week.

The plaintiffs released a statement saying, “Almost 40 years have passed since Okinawa was returned to Japan, and it is time for the Japanese people to examine the appropriateness of the government policies in those days.

“And it should be done through Japan’s own documents, not by those declassified in the United States, so we can hand down our history to the next generation. Disclosure of these documents will be the first and small step toward this.”

Looking back on the 11-month court battle, Komachiya said, “We’ve taken every possible measure and have no more regrets.”

Each plaintiff has cared deeply about the issues surrounding the secret pact over the past 40 years, “and all of them have their own narratives,” she said. “I’m focusing on how the court accepts the narratives and compiles the last chapter.”