The following is an excerpt from a chapter on Fukushima and Dispossession that I am writing for an edited collection on the Fukushima nuclear disaster:
Externality: Transparency and Democracy
In the months after the disaster, Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, acknowledged the importance of risk communication and pledged to transform his nation into a “risk-resistant society”: “We will make efforts to improve transparency and more readily share information,” Edano declared to the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network meeting (cited in Tonkin, 2011).
Transparency is widely considered foundational to good political and economic governance because it promotes responsibility to uphold laws of a democratic society and facilitates accountability (Florini, 2007). High transparency is believed to overcome informational asymmetries that enable insiders to make self-interested decisions that might adversely impact “outside” stakeholders. Transparency is the mechanism for promoting informed judgment in the market as well. This section turns to examine deliberate efforts at censorship in Japan that threaten transparency and democratic governance.
As previously explored in this chapter, the national Diet of Japan’s report on Fukushima documented that the lack of transparency in crisis management directly compromised citizen safety. The Japanese news media have also chastised the government for lack of transparency. For example, in December of 2013, The Asahi Shimbun ran an editorial charging that Japan’s bureaucratic secrecy hindered the disaster response, using the example of B.5.b. (Okuyama & Sunaoshi, 2013). B.5.b is a highly classified U.S.-developed contingency plan for a catastrophic nuclear plant event given to the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) prior to the March 2011 disaster. It remained highly classified during the March 2011 Daiichi explosions as only a handful of officials were privy to information that may have improved the insufficient disaster response (Okuyama & Sunaoshi, 2013).
This is not the first time secrecy has been cited as hindering the disaster response. High ranking government officials failed during the disaster to disclose publicly their information about the characteristics and directionality of radioactive plumes, which had been modeled by the SPEEDI system (i.e., the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose information (Tabuchi, Bradsher, & Pollack, 2011). In July of 2011, the Atomic Energy Society of Japan publicly criticized the Japanese government and TEPCO for delays in reporting SPEEDI data to the public, arguing that the lack of transparency may possibly have increased radiation exposure risks (“Nuclear Accident Disclosure,” 2011). The Japanese Diet report reached similar conclusions. Secrecy was rationalized as a strategy for reducing resistance to nuclear (“TEPCO Seeks More Government Support,” 2012).
Japan’s record on political transparency has substantially deteriorated since Edano made his pledge in 2011. In 2013 Japan’s LDP party pushed through a highly controversial state secrets bill. The bill has been vocally opposed by political opposition to the LDP, by editorials in the Japanese media, and in excoriating comments made by well-known Japanese citizens. The law stipulates harsh penalties for whistleblowers and fails to require government disclosure of what becomes secret (Yamaguchi, 2013). Critics charge it could undermine Japan’s democracy.
Many in Japan see the secrecy bill as a direct threat to Japan’s status as a peaceful democratic nation. One survey found more than 80 percent of Japanese citizens distrust the law, feeling it will be used by government to hide corruption and troubling information (Adelstein, 2013). Discontent with the bill is high among Japanese officials of opposition parties and within professional organizations. “Japan already has a very weak freedom of information act which this will cripple,” said Yutaka Saito, a member of the Japan In-House Lawyers Association task force. “The bill takes everything bad about national security laws in the U.S. and then removes all the safeguards and checks” (Adelstein, 2013).
Well known Japanese citizens have also raised alarm about the bill’s potential effects. Nobel laureates, Toshihide Maskawa and Hideki Shirakawa, spearheaded a public letter of protest signed by 3,000 academics, declaring support for “the pacifist principles and fundamental human rights established by the constitution” while calling simultaneously for the law’s immediate rejection” (Nader, 2014). Non-fiction writer Kunio Yanagida talked to Hiroshi Dai, Senior Member of the "Open Newspaper" Committee about his concerns with the bill given Japan’s historically “secretive” bureaucratic culture:
In the Japanese bureaucracy, it is common to hide not only information concerning national defense or foreign affairs but to keep general information about any matter a secret. Since I was involved in the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations and the Ministry of the Environment’s panel for the Minamata disease issue, I strongly feel the negative effects of the secretive culture. . . . Bureaucrats hide their inconvenient truths while making up things that never existed. The bureaucracy today still functions on the principle that things are fine as long as they add up in the paperwork. This thinking once played a major part in the former Japanese Imperial Army. The number of special secrets will increase just like military secrets did before Japan went into World War II…. (“Writer Calls for Change,” 2014)Yanagida went on to warn that the bill could actually criminalize free speech. He observed that LDP’s Shigeru Ishiba’s comment comparing “protest rallies” to “terrorism” illustrates growing intolerance for free speech among government officials. He also warned that journalists could be punished for reporting on state secrets.
International and national media organizations have echoed these concerns. Reporters without Borders condemned the bill Nov. 27 2013, for violating a free press (Adelstein, 2013). Within Japan, the mainstream media have demonstrated their concern about the new law in prominent editorials decrying its effects on democracy and civil society, as illustrated by this December 2013 editorial in The Japan Times titled “Government without Oversight”:
People have the right to know what their government is doing. Ensuring this right is the foundation of democracy. The state secrets bill, which the Abe administration Thursday rammed through the Upper House Special Committee on National Security for enactment, undermines this foundation because it blocks citizens” access to an extremely large amount of government-held information. This also means that lawmakers” access to important information held by bureaucracy will be blocked. Citizens and lawmakers should be aware that the bill will greatly change the nature of Japanese politics because it will severely limit the powers of people’s representatives and the Diet itself despite the fact that Article 41 of the Constitution says, “The Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole lawmaking organ of the State.” Japan’s democracy is now in a deep crisis. (“Government without Oversight," 2013)A more trenchant editorial published also in The Japan Times in 2013 described the bill as transforming the nation into the “new Uzbekistan of press freedom in Asia”:
The first rule of the pending state secrets bill is that a secret is a secret. The second rule is that anyone who leaks a secret and/or a reporter who makes it public via a published report or broadcast can face up to 10 years in prison. The third rule is that there are no rules as to which government agencies can declare information to be a state secret and no checks on them to determine that they don’t abuse the privilege; even defunct agencies can rule their information to be secret. The fourth rule is that anything pertaining to nuclear energy is a state secret, which means there will no longer be any problems with nuclear power in this country because we won’t know anything about it. And what we don’t know can’t hurt us. The right to know has now officially been superseded by the right of the government to make sure you don’t know what they don’t want you to know.…. The law has been compared to the pre-World War II Peace Preservation Law, which was used to arrest and jail any individual who opposed the government party line. (Adelstein, 2013)As illustrated by these passages, many Japanese media outlets took a strong stance against the law, fearing loss of democratic governance and the criminalization of free speech. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations publicly raised concerns that the new law would increase the government’s tendency to censor nuclear information (Okuyama & Sunaoshi, 2013). One representative from that organization suggested the law could be used to censor radiation readings. Other observers note that the law could compromise nuclear safety, as illustrated by this article in The Asahi Shimbun: “State Secrets Law Raises Concern about Safety of Nuclear Power Plants”:
There is growing concern that the government may be tempted to keep sensitive information on the safety of nuclear power plants under wraps once the state secrets protection law goes into force…. One reason for this is that the legislation leaves unclear what matters will be designated as state secrets and who will have authorization to determine what should be withheld from the public. “A tendency to hold back on vital information left nuclear power plants vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunami, resulting in the nuclear disaster,” said Yutaka Saito, a member of the federation’s task force on problems related to information. “We cannot fully engage in discussion about safety if information is withheld.” (“State Secret Law Raises Concern,” 2013).As illustrated by these examples, Japan’s new state secrets law has widely been challenged for posing direct risks to government accountability and transparency.
Among the most disturbing instance of failed transparency is the purported “secrecy agreement” established between the IAEA and Fukushima Prefectural University of Medicine on health findings from radiation exposure. Accordingly, The Tokyo Shimbun reported “Secret Designation Clause Fukushima IAEA, Fukui Share Private Information,” explaining that “private” data shared by the IAEA and Fukushima Prefectural University Hospital about radiation health effects will not be reported publicly (“Secret Designation Clause,” 2013).
Concern that radiation health effects will be censored is historically well grounded. Shuntaro Hida, a Japanese doctor who survived the atomic bomb, has written and lectured widely about official and self-censorship of radiation effects in the wake of the Hiroshima bombing at the close of World War II. He explains that stigmatization from radiation exposure was so great that citizens would deny symptoms even when seriously impacted. Hida writes in his book, “Naibu Hibaku no Kyoi” (The Threat of Internal Radiation Exposure). “This is inherited by the second (children’s) generation, and the third generation . . .” (cited in “Bomb Survivor Doctor, 2012).
This same pattern of censorship can be found in the US as well (e.g., see Goliszek, 2003), as illustrated historically by the CIA’s destruction in 1973 of records of secretive studies involving plutonium injections on human subjects, without their consent (Cockburn, 1994), and presently by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s crisis communications campaign aimed at reducing all public concern about Fukushima fallout in the U.S. (Dedman, 2014).
The state secrets law legally institutionalizes censorship and reinforces its indiscriminate practice. In early January 2014, Prof. Toru Nakakita of Tokyo University quit administering the “Business Outlook” section of a NHK weekday broadcast, titled, “Radio Asa Ichiban” after being asked to avoid broadcasting a planned 30 minute segment examining the enormous financial damages from nuclear plant accidents (“NHK Radio Regular,” 2014). The network was concerned about the influence the story might have on the ongoing Tokyo gubernatorial election. Nakakita explained his decision to the press: “We should have substantial debates precisely because it is the campaign period . . . . NHK reacted with excessive voluntary restraint, which shows a lack of awareness of the issue.”
Noted American consumer activist Ralph Nader warned that growing secrecy and legislative control in Japan were bad omens for democratic rights:
Draconian secrecy in government and fast-tracking bills through legislative bodies are bad omens for freedom of the Japanese press and freedom to dissent by the Japanese people. Freedom of information and robust debate (the latter cut off sharply by Japan’s parliament in December 5, 2013) are the currencies of democracy. (Nader, 2014)Nader concludes by noting that the “lessons of history beckon” in response to growing authoritarian trends in Japan and chronic secrecy in the U.S.