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Sunshine Law Sheds Little Light on Big Bureaucracy

Japan: Citizens seeking government documents under new disclosure measure are disappointed that officials are stymieing them.


TOKYO — After decades of scandals, insider dealings and official arrogance, Japan last year enacted a national information disclosure law designed to open bureaucrats' shadowy corridors of power to greater public scrutiny.

A year later, Atsuko Nomura, head of an Osaka group called the Right to Know Network, is roundly disappointed. Requests for information have been put off, ignored or answered with a fraction of what her group has asked for. Bureaucrats are dismissive. And the balance of power is still very much in favor of petty officials.

"This system just doesn't work properly," Nomura says. "They blocked us at the door. The central government seems incapable of dealing directly with its own people, and most of our requests have been flat-out denied."

Although citizens filed 40,000 disclosure requests in the last year, according to government statistics, 46% of the responses were incomplete or nonexistent. Officials face few penalties if they don't comply, and they often use excuses such as, "We're too busy," "Citizens are asking too much of us," and "We're not used to these kinds of questions."

Then there's the expense. Under a billing system that would confuse an Enron accountant, there are application fees, copying charges and browsing fees, some of which differ depending on whether documents touch each other in filing cabinets or sit in different drawers. A sizable search can cost more than $600, and getting it copied onto a CD can cost several hundred more. Some ministries accept cash; others accept only coupons sold at post offices. "It's as if they're saying you shouldn't even think about asking for this," Nomura says.

That said, even tough critics believe that the law in this land of incremental change is an important first step. The fact that ministry officials can be challenged by ordinary citizens is starting to make some rethink for whom they're working.

Yukiko Miki, executive director of the Tokyo-based Information Clearinghouse Japan, sees it as a long-term battle requiring constant vigilance and determination. "Bureaucrats act like those gophers in arcade games," she says from a tiny office stuffed floor to ceiling with documents. "You hammer down one, and another one pops up."

In the first few weeks after the law was enacted, citizens formed long lines in front of ministries, prompting at least one agency to erect tents to handle the overflow. In recent months, requests have dropped off in part because the backlog has diminished but also because some taxpayers have become too frustrated to continue their quest.

"It's very, very discouraging," says Masahiro Hirota, assistant manager of the Osaka tax office, whose request for details on Cabinet office slush funds was turned down. "They didn't even give a reason when they said no."

By law, ministries must respond within 30 days to a request. Because the regulations governing bureaucrats were written by fellow bureaucrats, however, embarrassing queries can seemingly be put off indefinitely.

Citizens who feel they're getting the runaround can appeal to a government review board. But this body lacks much muscle beyond some vague threat to embarrass those unwilling to yield information. And for scandal-plagued ministries already battered by public opinion, that threat doesn't count for much.

Disclosure Standards Vary by Agency

Another problem is inconsistent disclosure standards. Some ministries are forthcoming, helpful and willing to reveal names, while others are obstreperous. A recent survey by the Tokyo-based Citizens Center for Information Disclosure ranked the Foreign Ministry--which has been the subject of a string of payoff, embezzlement and infighting scandals--the worst. Other laggards were the ever-secretive Imperial Household Agency, charged with managing the emperor and his family, and the Defense Ministry. The best marks went to the Environment Ministry, a relatively weak agency eager for public support to fight its battles with other government entities.

Critics also complain that bureaucrats hide behind privacy rights, another murky legal area. And the lack of Internet access and credit card payment systems also can handicap citizens trying to obtain information from outside Tokyo.

Scholars say the law rests on weak pillars. Many important policy decisions in Japan are still made without writing anything down. This long-standing practice gives officials enormous discretionary power and great deniability, says Shohei Muta, senior researcher with the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records.

Even when decisions are recorded, rules on preserving those records are very weak, adds Hiroshi Asako, a law professor at Waseda University. While the U.S. and most European national archive systems have strict rules designed to preserve documents for posterity, Japanese bureaucrats are free to destroy most records after five years.

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