A recent article from the Yomiuri On-Line discusses the so-called personal information law and several of its problems. As I discussed in earlier posts dealing with the ethics of photographing in public in Japan, the law seems to have been over-interpreted by many to the point of making them paranoid about providing even the most basic information. This is not an easy or healthy environment for anthropological fieldwork. Full text article appears below:
The Personal Information Protection Law was meant to do exactly what its name suggests--protect people's personal information--but it has also led to excessive restrictions on the flow of information, something Cabinet minister Mizuho Fukushima is aiming to fix as she spearheads efforts to review the law.
The state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the declining birthrate, Fukushima recently instructed the Consumer Affairs Agency to thoroughly review the law, including the question of whether it should be revised so this country does not move further toward becoming an "anonymous society" stifled by the law's rigidity.
All parties concerned should conduct serious discussions about government organizations and businesses' refusal to release information due to their overreaction to the law's stipulations on guarding people's privacy. The proposed review should lead to truly effective measures that ensure the public's right to know, the very foundation of a democratic society.
The task of reviewing the Personal Information Protection Law, which took effect in April 2005, will be undertaken jointly by the Consumer Affairs Agency and the Consumer Commission, a Cabinet Office watchdog organization charged with consumer protection.
"I've instructed [relevant officials ] to carefully scrutinize cases of overreaction to the law's requirements," Fukushima told a press conference on Oct. 27.
At a session of the House of Councillors Budget Committee in 2006, Fukushima called for the release of information concerning amakudari, the practice by which retired bureaucrats secure high-paying jobs at companies or organizations in sectors they formerly oversaw. Specifically, she demanded that information be made public about the retirement allowances received by former high-ranking officials of the defunct Defense Facility Administration Agency from agency-linked entities where the officials acquired postretirement jobs.
However, Fukushima's demand was turned down by the government, which said the facts she sought represented "personal information," and the law prevented their disclosure without the consent of the individuals involved.
That bitter experience led Fukushima to resolve to change what she called the "structure of concealing information" at ministries and agencies.
The biggest problem involving the personal information law is this country's continuing march toward becoming an anonymous society, with people finding it more and more difficult to obtain information they need in their everyday lives.
Immediately after the enforcement of the law in 2005, many people lodged complaints with offices of the National Consumer Affairs Center, an independent administrative institution with branches across the country.
One typical complaint came from a woman with a daughter in middle school. She said a list from her daughter's school of students' names for use in times of emergency did not contain either the addresses or phone numbers of the students' homes.
"I worry about what could happen in an emergency," the woman said.
There actually is no problem with distributing such information--students and their parents only have to agree to it--but school authorities were nervous and went to excessive lengths not to violate the law, center officials said.
Scandals repeatedly covered up
In 2008, the administration of then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda carried out a review of the law. It ultimately did not make revisions, saying that overreactions would end when the public came to be well informed about the law. However, coverups of scandals involving government organizations have continued endlessly.
There also have been more than a few cases in which the press have been hindered in their coverage of the news.
Any measures to improve the application of the law--without getting to the heart of the problem by revising the legislation--likely will fail to stem this country's progress toward becoming an anonymous society.
"The current law does not strike a balance between the need to protect personal information and the value of personal information to the public," the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association said in a statement issued in March.
In the statement, the association demanded the law be revised to include provisions giving "special consideration to the value of personal information related to news organizations' activities in support of the public good and common public interests."
Masao Horibe, a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University who specializes in the freedom of information, said: "The law should be revised to change the current state of affairs in which disproportionately high importance has been given to the protection of personal information."
The forthcoming discussions on reviewing the personal information law under the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama should focus on how to devise measures that safeguard the people's right to know.
(Nov. 12, 2009)