Ruling on lawsuits brought by members of a citizens’ group, the Supreme Court this month ordered the government to disclose some administrative documents related to secret funds under the Cabinet Secretariat. However, it stopped short of ordering disclosure of documents containing information on what purposes and for whom the funds were used. The ruling for the first time puts a hole — albeit a small one — in the thick wall of secrecy surrounding the funds, and has institutionalized partial disclosure of information on their use and operation. Both the government and the Diet should take the ruling seriously and create a system under which people can monitor how the secret funds are used. A way should be devised that will help people make meaningful judgments on the funds’ use without harming national interests.

The secret funds, formally known as Cabinet Secretariat compensation expenses, provide the government with some flexibility in carrying out various operations. The chief Cabinet secretary makes a determination on how much and for what purposes the money should be used. The purposes include gaining cooperation in an informal manner from people related to important national policies and paying compensation to people who provide intelligence to the government. Annually, some ¥1.4 billion is earmarked for the funds.

The citizens’ group filed the lawsuits after its requests under the freedom of information law were turned down for documents related to a total of ¥2.71 billion in secret funds spent under three chief Cabinet secretaries — ¥1.1 billion under Shinzo Abe in the Koizumi administration in 2005 and 2006, ¥250 million under Takeo Kawamura in the Aso administration in 2009 and ¥1.36 billion under Yoshihide Suga in the Abe administration in 2013.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court’s Second Petty Bench ordered the state to disclose documents dealing with the total monthly amount spent and the amount of money from the secret funds transferred to the coffers directly under the control of the chief Cabinet secretary. The ruling may have the effect of the government becoming more prudent about the use of the secret funds. The top court said that even if these documents are disclosed, it will be impossible for people to identify the dates and amounts of individual payments, or the number of people to whom individual payments were made.

But the Supreme Court did not order the disclosure of documents showing the recipients and amounts of payments from the funds as well as documents whose disclosure, when examined in comparison with political situations and policy issues of particular times, would enable identification of the purposes or the recipients of payments. It pointed out that disclosure of these documents could hamper proper execution of important policies and damage other countries’ trust in Japan, thus causing a disadvantage to Japan in diplomatic negotiations or harming national security.

Thus the top court’s ruling did not call for full disclosure of all information on the secret funds. It must be remembered that the lack of transparency concerning the funds has been an ongoing problem. In 2001, a Foreign Ministry official was fired and arrested on suspicion of pocketing some of the secret funds. In 2002, he was tried and found guilty of stealing ¥480 million. The same year, the Japanese Communist Party made public certain records that hinted money from the funds was used to buy suits and gift certificates. In 2010, Hiromu Nonaka, who served as chief Cabinet secretary in the Obuchi administration, said that he used ¥50 million to ¥70 million from the funds each month, including ¥10 million given to the prime minister and ¥5 million given to Liberal Democratic Party Diet members in charge of Diet policy. He also said that he distributed money out of the funds to opposition politicians and political commentators.

As the current chief Cabinet secretary, Suga says he takes the Supreme Court ruling seriously and will respond in an appropriate manner after closely studying it. At the very least, the Abe administration should scrutinize whether the funds are used for proper purposes. To help dispel suspicions that the funds are used in unsavory ways to influence the political world, the government and the Diet should take concrete measures. Possible options should include disclosing detailed reports on the use of the secret funds after a few decades have passed, creating a procedure under which Diet members examine the funds’ use behind closed doors and instituting an audit system for the funds’ use. They also should examine whether the freedom of information law has a loophole that allows the government to refuse information disclosure by citing vague and too broadly defined reasons.

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