What kinds of things are being classified as government secrets in Japan today? Don't ask; that's secret too, isn't it? We had some very serious worries about the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets when it was passed in December 2013 and when it went into effect a year later. We are seeing them come true.
The Cabinet recently approved the legally required report to the Diet on how the secrets law is functioning. According to that report, 11 government ministries and agencies had designated 443 cases as special state secrets by the end of 2015, including 61 cases over the course of that year. The designations cover more than 270,000 documents, an increase of 80,000-plus from 2014.
The descriptions of the types of information classified in 2015 are vague in the extreme. For example, one entry is titled, "Valuations regarding the various conditions of defensive capability adjustments inside and outside Japan, etc." It's virtually impossible to even guess from the report what categories of information are being made secret, and thus it is very difficult indeed to judge the validity of the designations.
The secrets act allows the heads of government bodies to, at their own discretion, make secret anything related to national security, such as important information on diplomacy, defense, counterterrorism and counterintelligence. It was pointed out from the very beginning, if applied arbitrarily, the law could violate the public's right to know.
To guard against this eventuality, the law also established information monitoring committees in both houses of the Diet. The lawmakers on these committees were, as representatives of the Japanese people, charged with judging how the government was managing its secrets.
The sad reality is, however, that the committees are not performing their function adequately. Even when committee members demand concrete explanations for what or why something has been made a special state secret, sources say that the government now regularly refuses to give a straight answer.
Even if the government claims this is to prevent information leaks, we cannot accept this attitude. The committees' meetings are themselves secret, meaning the members have a legal duty of confidentiality that they would be punished for violating. That being the case, logic dictates that the government is obliged to explain its secrets classifications in as much detail as it is able, so that the committees can properly judge their validity.
In both committees' annual reports released in March, the bodies demanded that the government improve its responses. The House of Representatives committee demanded that the government "immediately move to include concrete descriptions" for each item in the summary list of new special secrets "to ensure that the scope of the secret designation has specific limitations," among other requests for improvement. We would like to see the government take up the committee's opinion right away.
Effort on the part of the committees is also necessary. They can request that the government submit special secrets, though the government is under no legal obligation to comply. Nevertheless, the committees have made a grand total of five such requests, all of which have been met. As such, we call on the committees to be much more assertive. The committees need to pass these requests by a majority vote, and the ruling parties hold more than half the seats in both bodies, making it difficult to press forward with such motions. Is there no proposal for reducing the necessary ratio, for example to one-third of members?
Furthermore, when the committees were being established, the ruling parties considered creating a mechanism for people inside the government to report an inappropriate application of the secrets law. However, the idea went nowhere. It should be given a second look. The Diet should plan ways to make sure the committees can fulfill their duty to monitor the state secrets law.