After two decades of on-and-off arguments, the Diet finally passed a freedom of information bill into law last Friday. For the first time in Japan’s history, a law stipulates that the government “has the duty to explain to the nation” the way government ministries and agencies run their affairs. To be put into force in 2001, this law should serve well one of the basic principles of democracy: Access to information is essential for the public to be able to keep an eye on the government.

The need for an information-disclosure law was first discussed in 1979, when extraordinary revelations made during the Lockheed scandal trials triggered public calls for greater transparency in the murky Japanese political system. In subsequent years, however, successive Liberal Democratic Party governments managed to kill every single “official document-disclosure bill” sponsored by the opposition.

Traditionally, information held by the government was treated strictly on a need-to-know basis during the long years of LDP rule. Resistance to disclosure remains strong within the LDP even today. Indeed, toward the final stages of Diet debate on the bill, some Liberal Democrats expressed their concern that such a law could give “a mistaken notion of direct supervision by the people” and encourage “a negation of the parliamentary representative system.”

Thus, the surprise is not that the information-disclosure bill contains so many ambiguities and compromises, but that it has been enacted at all. True, key parts of the legislation, such as the number of years required for keeping documents and the exact scope of nondisclosure, have been kept vague. To its more severe critics, the law may seem designed to keep as much discretionary power as possible in the hands of “heads of administrative bodies.” Although the law gives seekers of government information the right to sue, the heads of administrative bodies, in practice, have the discretion to withhold information if they deem that there are “sufficient reasons” to authorize nondisclosure. Even the appeals panel due to be set up under the oversight of the Prime Minister’s Office for the specific purpose of reviewing disclosure cases does not have the binding power to force compliance.

Still, the public’s right to sue for government documents will certainly make it less comfortable for officials to hide behind their formidable paper wall. Furthermore, the very possibility of exposure will, it is hoped, give government agencies an added incentive to demonstrate accountability.

Now that the information-disclosure law is in the statute books at the national level, the pressure is on local governments to set up their own disclosure ordinances. While it was some open-minded local administrators who took the lead on disclosure in the first place, they were clearly in the minority. A whopping 80 percent of local authorities have yet to follow. For that matter, the Diet has chosen to keep itself out of public purview, and disclosure laws governing the numerous public corporations will not come into being for at least another two years.

In any case, this law in its present form can only be seen as a first step. The many remaining gray areas and the retention of discretionary power have made proponents of public disclosure wary about the law’s potential effectiveness. The biggest threat is official paranoia. Unless bureaucrats at every level are ready and willing to shift their mind-set from “need-to-know” to “right-to-know” with regard to ordinary people, the information-disclosure law will not amount to much. There are many ways of circumventing such a law in a country where even file-keeping procedures are not standardized.

The shift to open government will not materialize, therefore, unless the public continues to maintain its vigilance. Sustained public interest, for instance, is needed to ensure that the government appoints a truly independent and unbiased appeals panel to review cases of rejection. Bureaucrats used to seeking consensus only within a small coterie can hardly be expected to welcome public scrutiny without the continued moral support and encouragement of that public. Also, further openness in government is doomed if the public is perceived to be abusing the disclosure law.

Ultimately, we must all realize that the argument for freedom of information in a democracy is compelling. There is no real alternative to openness and accountability. The government and the public must work hand in hand to make the new law work meaningfully. After all, more important than details of the law is its political message: Public participation in government is vital for a democracy and can bring change.

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