Photo/IllutrationA document on Japan-U.S. relations compiled in the late 1950s, left, which was released by the Foreign Ministry as part of routine disclosure in 2010, and a copy of the same document that was released after it was blackened out in response to information disclosure made in 2017. (Naotaka Fujita)

The government should not use the need for diplomatic or national security secrecy as a convenient pretext for rejecting freedom-of-information requests.

It should ensure that all its sections understand and respect the importance of public documents management and freedom of information.

The Foreign Ministry refused freedom-of-information requests for the disclosure of some diplomatic documents that had already been made available to the public.

It was an incredibly insincere response to the requests for important information in the public domain.

One of the documents the ministry refused to release to The Asahi Shimbun was dated July 15, 1968. The documents described discussions on how to proceed with seeking the reversion of Okinawa to Japan from the United States in negotiations with U.S. officials.

The parts of the document concerning discussions on the possibility that the U.S. military might bring nuclear weapons into Japan during military emergencies were blackened out.

In another case, Yujin Fuse, a freelance journalist, asked the ministry two years ago for the disclosure of documents compiled in the latter half of the 1950s on talks on the revision of the Japan-U.S. Administrative Agreement, the predecessor of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

In response, the ministry blackened out parts or all of the 26 of 27 documents he requested.

In both cases, the ministry cited risks of undermining national security and Japan’s relations with the United States.

But The Asahi Shimbun has discovered that all these documents had already been declassified and made public and are available on the ministry’s website and through other media.

When we make such requests, can we not expect the government to check how the documents in question were dealt with in the past?

In explaining the administrative lapses, the ministry has said there seem to have been some “slip-ups,” pointing out that a small staff has to deal with a huge number of such requests.

If so, the ministry should consider seriously increasing both the staff and budget for this important service.

We cannot help but suspect that the ministry may be liable to decide ahead of time to reject requests to declassify sensitive information due to concerns about possible diplomatic and national security repercussions.

To be sure, there are many pieces of sensitive information in the foreign and security policy areas that cannot be made public immediately.

But the basic rules concerning government documents in democratic countries require the government to keep records of negotiations and decision-making processes and disclose them after a certain period to provide vital materials for historical research.

In the United States, the “30-year rule” has long been established, which requires the government to release publicly official documents, in principle, 30 years after they were created.

In 1976, the Japanese government started releasing diplomatic documents according to this principle. But the government has been criticized for allowing too many exceptions to the principle.

Making diplomatic documents available to the public is vital for winning the people’s support for foreign policy. Experts also point out that the step also helps support the government’s claims and arguments concerning diplomatic issues.

When it tries to prove the legitimacy of its argument in a diplomatic dispute with another country, for example, disclosed information concerning the history of the issues involved helps reinforce its case.

The previous government, led by the former Democratic Party of Japan, made clear its intention to promote disclosure of diplomatic documents. As an example of the DPJ-led government’s initiative to enhance disclosure, former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada of the party set out to examine secret deals concerning the Japan-U.S. bilateral security treaty and Okinawa’s handover to Japan.

But the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which took power from the DPJ in December 2012, has proved to be far less eager to promote the cause.

The Abe administration’s rule has been marked by policy initiatives and scandals indicating disrespect for the importance of disclosure and public documents management in the entire government. They include the enactment of the state secrets protection law, the Finance Ministry’s falsification of official documents and coverups concerning the Self-Defense Forces daily logs.

The latest episodes concerning the freedom-of-information requests probably have something to do with the administration’s secrecy-oriented culture.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 5