Freedom of information comes at price for Okinawans

By Masaya Maruyama, Mainichi Shimbun, Saturday, 8 May 1999

Okinawa residents are disgruntled that the newly passed Freedom of Information Law does not include Okinawa's Naha District Court among the courts at which residents can file a complaint if the government refuses to disclose requested information.

It is very regrettable and at the same time aggravating, said Keiji Shinzato, a lawyer in Okinawa who serves as a member of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations' committee on freedom of information. He was referring to the contents of the long-awaited bill that was passed by the Diet on Friday.

The law allows residents, if their disclosure requests are rejected, to file lawsuits against the central government at any district court in the eight cities where high courts are located—Tokyo, Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Fukuoka—but not at the Naha District Court, as there is no high court in Okinawa Prefecture.

I would like to file a suit for compensation against Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Shinzato said.

Shinzato anticipates that when the law is enforced, slated for within two years of its passage, there will be a series of requests from residents of Okinawa for the disclosure of information related to defense issues.

Such information will include documents that were signed between the central government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government over issues concerning the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, or about the secret agreement signed between the U.S. and Japanese governments over nuclear issues at the time of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan.

For the sites for lawsuits to be reviewed, we have to wait until six years from now since revision is slated to occur at least four years after the enforcement of the law, and the enforcement itself is about two years away, Shinzato said.

It is crystal clear that the government wants to avoid taking requests for the disclosure of information on matters related to defense, at a time when issues such as the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station are imminent, he said.

Furthermore, he opines that the recent government decision to hold the top meetings of the 2000 summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial powers and Russia in Okinawa was actually meant to be a carrot-and-stick policy for Okinawa.

I cannot help thinking that the decision to hold the summit in Okinawa was meant to be a ‘carrot’ in return for excluding Okinawa's court from the list of lawsuit sites and blurring the issues concerning U.S. bases in Okinawa, Shinzato said.

A survey by a group in Tokyo shows that Okinawans have the highest transportation expenses for travel to the nearest court—which is the Fukuoka District Court—in order to contest administrative decisions not to disclose information they have requested.

If a plaintiff and two lawyers travel back and forth between the city where their prefectural government is situated and the nearest court at which they can file a complaint 10 times for the first trial and five times for the second trial, it would cost 1.87 million yen in travel expenses alone, the survey shows.

Nevertheless, Shinzato is eager to make the most of the newly passed law.

We would like to request the disclosure of information that can be disclosed. We will ask the Fukuoka Bar Association for cooperation and ask their lawyers to attend the hearing (at the Fukuoka District Court), Shinzato said.