HAEBARU, Okinawa Pref. — While searching for records on the postwar history of Okinawa in the United States for nine years through 2006, Kazuhiko Nakamoto was impressed with the meticulous documentation management there.
“The documents at the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, included typed papers as well as handwritten memorandums (made by government officials), and I can see how they decided on their Okinawa policies by checking the filed papers in sequence,” he said. “And if certain documents were not made open, it was clearly explained why.”
As a senior archivist at the Okinawa Prefectural Archives, the 45-year-old Nakamoto is now focusing on how the Tokyo District Court will rule Friday on a lawsuit in which 25 plaintiffs are demanding that the government disclose three diplomatic documents over Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty from U.S. control in 1972.
The plaintiffs argue that the papers, which were already declassified in the U.S., confirm secret bilateral pacts on financing the reversion, but the government claims it doesn’t have them, and if it ever did they may have been tossed into the garbage.
“I believe, as an archivist, it is unacceptable for the government to keep the process behind its decision-making clandestine only by claiming the relevant papers do not exist,” Nakamoto said. “It is a problem of democracy.”
One of the requested papers indicates that Japan secretly shouldered $4 million in costs that the United States was supposed to pay to restore farmland in Okinawa that had been used by U.S. forces, and it carries the initial of a high-ranking Japanese diplomat.
Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota is another person who was impressed by NARA’s massive collection of documents during his decades-long research of his homeland.
“At NARA, even a piece of paper or what the government had once concealed was made open,” said Ota, 84, also a former professor at the University of the Ryukyus.
After seeing the detailed records on Okinawa in the U.S., Ota established the prefectural archives, located in Haebaru, near Naha, in 1995 after he became governor, and assigned Nakamoto to collect the Okinawa documents in the United States.
The archives now make the American version of the diplomatic papers, which the plaintiffs seek to reveal and the government claims it does not possess, publicly accessible.
“The amount of documents we have collected from the U.S. side is so sufficient that researchers do not have to visit the United States to complete their study on the Okinawa reversion,” Nakamoto said.
Ota wishes he had access to the documents back when he was in office.
“Given that we were not informed of the detailed process of the Okinawa reversion, I feared as governor that I didn’t grasp the whole picture of the areas under my jurisdiction,” he said.
“It also stirred concerns that the Okinawa issues, such as the U.S. base problem, were being discussed while the local people were kept out of the loop,” he added, stressing the need for information disclosure, particularly now that Okinawa is watching how the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will play out.
Ota hopes the ruling will prompt the government to be more transparent. He believes keeping people in the dark has imposed disadvantages on Okinawa, including the fact that the bulk of the U.S. forces in Japan are stationed there.
“The government should not have accelerated the Okinawa reversion by concluding the secret pacts,” he said. “It should have presented relevant information to us for full discussions.”
The suit has also drawn the attention of Okinawans opposed to the bases.
Hiroshi Ashitomi, 63, joined the prefectural government when Okinawa returned to Japan, believing he could be free from the spell of U.S. bases. “But things have not developed as I expected,” he said.
Ashitomi was staging a sit-in protest in the Henoko area of Nago against relocating the Futenma airfield there when he heard the announcement last month by a Foreign Ministry panel that it had confirmed the existence of three secret pacts with the U.S., including one covering the cost burdens for the Okinawa reversion.
“I thought it ripped away the mask of the government, that tends to cover up inconvenient issues,” he said, adding that the judicial decision will further promote information disclosure so people in Okinawa, not the central government, can take the lead in forging a vision of their future, including what happens to Futenma.
“I believe it will be an important step toward maturing the democracy in Japan,” he said.
The 25 plaintiffs include former Mainichi Shimbun reporter Takichi Nishiyama, 78, who was convicted in the 1970s for his reporting activities over the Okinawa reversion, as well as several scholars and journalists in Okinawa. Akiko Yui, former managing editor at a major local newspaper, the Okinawa Times, is among them.
Echoing Ashitomi, Yui, 76, said: “Given that people in Okinawa have faced crimes and accidents (involving U.S. military forces), promoting information disclosure is crucial for us in securing our safety. It is an immediate problem for us. I hope the court decision will lead to fulfilling our vision.”
To enhance information disclosure, the archivist Nakamoto pointed out that the appropriate document control procedure should come first, describing documentation and disclosure as “two wheels of one cart.”
“It is not enough only to keep records of drafts of policy proposals and final approvals for them because they do not fully present the decision-making process,” he said.
Discussions among lawmakers or public officials by telephone and e-mail before reaching the proposals and their approval should also be filed, he proposed, asking them to “compile policies not only through their heads and verbal exchanges but also through documentation.”
“They could do it if they are aware that they are the ones making important decisions,” he said.
Policymakers should follow his proposals when they are involved in the talks over the currently disputed Futenma issue “so people could examine even 50 years later how it was discussed and how it was settled,” he said.