Companies struggling in the aftermath of scandals, such as Tokyo Electric Power Co., Takata Corp., Olympus Corp. and the Asahi Shimbun, might have mitigated the damage had they been less inclined to cover things up.
One man is on a quest to create transparency in Japan’s opaque business world with a whistleblower website that has echoes of Wikileaks.
The man behind it is academic Masayuki Hatta, who hopes the project will counter what he calls Japan Inc.’s instinct to conceal blunders.
“Whether it’s Takata having to recall its air bags or the Asahi having to (retract articles), it’s all the same,” said Hatta, a 35-year-old assistant professor of economics at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture.
“Some of the staff involved must have known what was happening, but they never came forward. They simply kept hiding and hiding (bad practices), and before they knew it, things were spiraling out of control,” Hatta said of the firms that suffered when their misdeeds finally came to light.
Whistleblowing in Japan, as with other nations, can have serious costs for those who speak out.
Employees are under such powerful peer pressure that they balk at speaking out about malpractice and avoid unorthodox behavior, Hatta said, noting whistleblowers also face being branded as traitors.
Hatta’s website, which is preparing for a debut as early as February, is a direct challenge to that mindset.
“Think of it as a health checkup. Companies are actually better off having whistleblowers in their organization, because that way they can cure their problems before it’s too late,” he said.
Inspired by the Netherlands-based online platform Publeaks, Hatta’s website, Whistleblowing.jp, will accept tips from all whistleblowers, be they employees or government officials, and refer them to journalists registered with the site.
The website will also be available in English, in anticipation of further revelations of corporate wrongdoing such as those exposed by British-born Michael Woodford, who was rapidly fired after becoming president of Olympus Corp. in 2011 after exposing a “tobashi” loss-hiding accounting scheme at the camera maker that stretched back to the go-go days of the bubble economy, Hatta said.
After he announced the project in October, speculation grew that Hatta was challenging the controversial state secrecy law, which took effect in December.
But the scholar said the law had little to do with his desire to set up the website. If anything, he supports moves to bolster national security — which the government said was the reason behind the law.
Although the law stipulates that journalists and others who “instigate” leaks can face a five-year prison term, Hatta is optimistic his project won’t be outlawed, because Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press.
The site can be reached at 4ge3uua3uaxuhhaq.onion, but only via Tor, an Internet network that Hatta says guarantees anonymity.
The Tor network is accessed by free software of the same name that uses so-called onion routing technology, which encrypts messages in layers as they travel through the network’s servers before arriving at their final destination, rendering their origins virtually untraceable.
Unlike Wikileaks, Whistleblowing.jp will not verify or probe any of the tips or publish its own articles. The site’s purpose, Hatta said, boils down to connecting whistleblowers with journalists with the initiative to act on the information.
Hatta, who himself has no reporting experience, consulted 15 reporters from major newspapers, including the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun, as well as NHK while creating the website.
Many expressed an interest in registering with his site but none have done so yet.
A potential whistleblower seeking to get the word out on Hatta’s site would first go through Tor, then, after reviewing their profiles, select a journalist or news organization to receive the sensitive information.
The informers will be prompted to outline the content of their tips and upload related data when deemed necessary. Once submitted, whistleblowers will be assigned a 16-digit code they can use for communication with the recipients.
The journalists will receive the information in an encrypted email that will require them to use different software to decode.
Neither the journalists nor Hatta will know the identity of the senders, because Tor makes their IP address virtually impossible to track.
However, this impregnable protection could be a disadvantage by putting the trustworthiness of the submitted tips in doubt.
In fact, Hatta freely admits the website will probably be inundated with disinformation.
“So as a journalist you will need to be smart enough to determine if a tip is genuine,” he said, noting the chances of being duped are great.
But Hatta said whistleblowers aren’t the only ones who could create doubt. Those registering as journalists, for instance, could actually be agents seeking to sell inside intelligence to a third party.
It is even possible, moreover, that Hatta himself has ulterior motives.
“The chief concept of this website is: ‘Do not trust anyone,’ ” he said mischievously. “But however questionable each player may be, the anonymity of whistleblowers is one thing that will remain watertight. That was my biggest goal.”
In a country where whistleblowing is rare, Hatta is sure to face an uphill battle in bringing about change. And he is well aware of this.
“I don’t think my project alone will trigger a drastic change in the status quo,” he said. “But at the very least, it will make whistleblowing something easier to take a stab at.”