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Japan’s First Court Ruling on the “Secret Agreements” Controversy

by Sheila A. Smith
April 9, 2010

The Tokyo District Court today ruled that the Japanese government must make public “secret documents” on Okinawa reversion. This is the first court ruling on the controversy over Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives related to the US-Japan military presence in Japan.

A request was made by a group of 25 journalists and scholars in September 2008 under Japan’s Information Disclosure Act for the declassification of three documents that laid out the Japanese government’s payment for the removal of US forces from Okinawa at the time of reversion. A month later, both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance responded saying that these documents “did not exist,” and the group took their case against the government to court. Today’s ruling also awards each of these plaintiffs 100,000 yen in damages.

The investigation into the existence of “secret agreements” between Tokyo and Washington on key issues surrounding the US military in Japan has become a top headline since the DPJ came into power. Previous public acknowledgements by retired senior Japanese officials suggested that the Japanese government may have said one thing in private to Washington and another in public in Japan on difficult alliance issues. The main controversies focused on two politically volatile issues that date back to the 1960s: the Japanese government’s position on the introduction of US nuclear weaponry to Japan and the fiscal burden assumed by Japan for the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada immediately ordered an internal investigation when he took office last September. Once this investigation produced existing files, he appointed a commission comprised of some of Japan’s leading academic experts on the US-Japan relationship to judge their authenticity and to analyze the claims made about the “secret agreements” with Washington. The full statement of their assessment, as well as the documents found by the MOFA, can be found online.

To date, not all of the documents alleged to exist have turned up, producing a new controversy over whether or not MOFA officials destroyed the files. The Lower House Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Muneo Suzuki, has begun hearings on these issues, calling a number of individuals to testify who claim the documents existed at some earlier point in time.

The smoking gun for the Foreign Ministry and now for the Finance Ministry also, is the implication that these documents may have been destroyed. Foreign Minister Okada has already begun an internal investigation in response to the allegations made in the Diet hearings, but has indicated he is not considering at this stage any formal sanctions against MOFA personnel. The Foreign Relations Committee in the Lower House has threatened to call key MOFA officials to testify, but there is some caution being exercised at the moment.

Today’s court ruling is a milestone, however, in that it is the first time that citizens have used  Japan’s Information Disclosure Act effectively against the government on an issue related to the US military.

Moreover, as all eyes are focused these days on the politics of base realignment in Okinawa, the victory for those trying to unveil the terms of past US-Japan deals on Okinawa base issues reaffirms the sense within Okinawa that policy decisions regarding the bases have been made behind closed doors in Tokyo and Washington.

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