Japan may try a little openness

The Japanese once thought of their leaders as O-kami - gods in pin stripes striding the marble halls of parliament and directing the well-oiled bureaucratic machine.

A decade of scandals has eroded that respect. Now, activists such as Tokyo lawyer Toshiaki Takahashi are nearing the end of a campaign to bring Japan's leaders more solidly down to earth.

They have been pushing a freedom of information (FOI) bill that is likely to become law in weeks. It will require Japan's government, for the first time, to explain its decisions and how they were reached - at least some of the time.

In a country where leaders have long made their most important judgments behind closed doors and with little explanation, this measure may well change the way people see authority. The bill has major loopholes, political observers say, and avoids the central issue of whether access to government information is a citizen's basic right.

But even critics say greater transparency will change the way government works and make Japanese democracy a more mature and collective enterprise.

"The bill represents real change in this country," says Hidenori Sasaki, a member of the opposition Democratic Party who has been working on the issue for two years. "It shows that people's awareness of democracy - what it really means - is growing. It also shows a change in Japanese people's attitudes toward power. They're asking for more accountability now."

Currently, private citizens have no right to demand government information. The FOI bill would allow anyone to submit a request for a cost of no more than $5.

Inspired by a similar law the US enacted in 1966, some lawyers and politicians have been trying to establish a Japanese equivalent for years. But political support was low, and public awareness of the issue was minimal.

"It's not a difficult concept for Japanese to grasp, but they just weren't used to it," says Mr. Takahashi, who heads the National Citizens' Ombudsman Conference, a watchdog group.

A cultural respect for hierarchy is one reason. But historically, Japan's leaders have preferred a citizenry that was seen and not heard. In the feudal era leading up to Japan's modernization in the late 1800s, those who wanted to question the government had to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the privilege.

Once the country began emulating Western-style politics, the government adopted a "count on us" approach that discouraged questions, Mr. Sasaki says. And, despite the rapid democratization led by US occupation forces after World War II, "Japan still had this idea that disclosure was not good," he adds.

The news media, which have close, formalized ties to the government, have not played a large role in pushing greater information disclosure. "The media are involved in the power system," says Takahashi. "They're not dirty, but they're not free. It's the great weakness of Japanese democracy."

Bribery and corruption scandals in the 1990s, especially a 1996 debacle at the Health Ministry, drove home the need for transparency. In that incident, Health Ministry bureaucrats rejected advice that they use sterilized blood products despite growing concern that some unsterilized products were contaminated with HIV, the virus defined as causing AIDS.

Naoto Kan, health minister at the time, became a national hero for releasing documents that detailed the bureaucrats' actions. He now heads the opposition Democratic Party, which has strongly supported the FOI bill. In fact, parties of all political stripes back the bill because it is highly popular with the public. With local elections just a few weeks away, everyone wants something to show the voters.

But with so many cooks, the concept of information disclosure has gotten watered down, critics say. "The bill gives ministries all sorts of vague criteria for rejecting disclosure requests," says John Neuffer, a political analyst at Mitsui Marine Research Institute, a corporate-backed think tank.

The government will not provide information about semi-governmental organizations, which do a lot of ministry research. It will also deny requests that would disrupt neutrality in decisionmaking or hamper corporate competition. Materials related to security and diplomacy would also be off limits.

The prime minister will appoint a nine-member council to review rejected FOI requests, but it will have no legal power. Petitioners will be able to appeal rejections at eight district courts around the country, but Japanese courts can literally take decades to reach a decision.

The greatest debate has centered on the refusal by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to include in the bill a statement that the public has a right to access government information. The LDP argues that, since no such guarantee is in the Constitution, it cannot be included in a law.

The party has other concerns. "The basic premise for fair information disclosure is that the public must be mature enough," says Shigeo Uetake, the LDP's lead negotiator on the bill. "Information shouldn't be abused or misused," he says, citing groups who want to make trouble for the government or people who file requests but don't follow up. "The idea of individual responsibility is pretty much established in Western societies, but that isn't so in Japan," he says. "Japanese people aren't all that mature yet."

OTHER politicians are also leery of what greater freedom of information will mean. Mr. Kan, the opposition leader, who has recently denied press allegations that he had an extramarital affair, expressed his concern that an FOI law will mean a more intrusive press. "People might believe that freedom of information equals invasion of privacy. We need to draw a clear line," he told reporters last week."Don't electrocute yourselves [going after private information]."

Takahashi of the National Citizens' Ombudsman Conference is among those who dismiss politicians' concerns, and particularly those of the LDP. The party has held power for most of Japan's postwar history and has tight ties with the bureaucracy. "They're basically worried that, once the public gets some rights, more and more people will ask for information about what they do," he says.

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