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The Personal Information Protection Law, which went into effect in April 2005, in principle bars organizations that possess or handle personal information from providing it to third parties without the consent of the people concerned. Good intentions are behind the law.

Nevertheless, it has led to the creation of many absurd situations in which individuals and organizations are refused information that is necessary, even when it is of a benign nature. The government should revise the law to establish a proper balance between the protection of personal information and reasonable access to it for legitimate purposes.

While the law bans organizations in principle from providing information on individuals to third parties without the individuals’ consent, it does allow for exceptional cases in which they may provide such information without consent. The exceptions include occasions when the parties seeking information are performing a legal duty; when the information is necessary to protect the lives and property of the individuals concerned; when the organizations are obliged to cooperate with the central and local governments executing their responsibilities; and when the information is necessary to promote the health of the public and the healthy growth of children.

Necessary or benign information has been withheld for at least two reasons: (1) a misunderstanding of the law, and (2) an overly cautious attitude on the part of organizations possessing information. Organizations tend to think that withholding information is the safest way to avoid legal trouble. Moreover, some organizations may be taking advantage of the law to protect individuals close to them, with the ultimate aim of protecting themselves.

One absurd situation that was widely reported occurred after the April 25, 2005, West Japan Railway accident in Hyogo Prefecture, which killed 107 people and injured 562 others. Many people contacted hospitals, thinking that their relatives or friends might have been taken there. But the hospitals refused to answer their questions, citing the personal information law.

The law is also making it difficult for lawyers to properly carry out their duties. According to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, there are many cases in which local governments and other administrative organizations refuse to provide information on individuals to lawyers who are legally seeking information for use in trials. Thus court proceedings are affected.

Furthermore, the law is destroying the formation of personal bonds between people. Community groups that want to aid the elderly and infirm in the event of natural disasters often have difficulty obtaining information on such people from local government sections in charge of disaster prevention or social welfare. It has also become virtually impossible for parents of school children to make a list of emergency contact numbers, or for a neighborhood association to issue a membership list.

Government ministries and agencies are withholding information to which the public is entitled. In some cases, they withhold not only the names of people who have passed state qualifying examinations but also the career records of high-ranking bureaucrats. It is unreasonable to shield information on public persons such as lawmakers and high-ranking public servants. Police, meanwhile, often have refused to disclose the names of crime victims to the media. And recalls of defective products are hindered because retailers refuse to disclose client lists when contacted by manufacturers of the products.

A panel of the Council for Stabilization of National Life in the Cabinet Office, which studied problems caused by the law, recently submitted a report to Ms. Sanae Takaichi, the state minister in charge of the law’s implementation. The report says that an “examination of more measures including a law revision” is necessary. But this is not a call for an immediate law revision; instead, the panel takes the position that a review plus full implementation of 35 guidelines for applying the law, already written by government ministries and agencies, will suffice. It should be noted, though, that all the problems mentioned have occurred despite the existence of these guidelines. Clearly, nothing short of a revision of the law will do.

The government should heed a statement issued by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, which calls for a measure to stop abuse of the law that leads to the withholding of socially necessary information. It warns that if the spirit of the law continues to be bent in this way, the people’s right to know will be violated and the foundations of democratic society undermined.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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