【Opinion】 In a country where bureaucrats monopolize state secrets, TPP negotiations remain in the dark

By Ryuichi Teshima, Diplomatic Journalist and Writer

Holding up heavily redacted documents on the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks, opposition party lawmakers urged the government to disclose the details of the negotiations in the Diet sessions in April. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Cabinet ministers refused, saying the government cannot disclose the negotiation process since Japan joined the negotiations under the condition that it should be kept confidential. Opposition lawmakers were not convinced. They showed the manuscript of pre-publication memoirs authored by former farm minister Koya Nishikawa which reveals details of what went on in negotiations behind closed doors, and asked why the information cannot be disclosed to the Diet, the nation’s highest organ of state power.

The Abe administration initially intended to pass the TPP-related bills in the current Diet session. However, the government and the ruling coalition decided not to extend the session, which means the bills will not be passed in the current Diet session. They were apparently concerned that forcibly passing the bills could have an adverse effect on the upcoming Upper House election. Meanwhile, it looks like the U.S. Congress is also expected to delay the approval of the TPP pact until after the presidential election. The delay in the deliberations of the deal in Japan and the U.S., the driving force of the agreement, is casting a shadow on the launch of the trade pact.

A massive trade zone is being created in the Asia-Pacific region in the beginning of the 21st century, and the TPP agreement will become the center of trade in the region. All the member countries are debating over how much of the TPP negotiations should be disclosed, as they have signed a confidentiality agreement. However, in the case of Japan, the true nature of the problem lies somewhere deeper.

Japanese diplomatic officials are generally reluctant to disclose sensitive information to politicians, because they fear politicians would leak information to the media. In Diet sessions, ministers answer questions in principle, but it is no use urging them to disclose information, because it is the bureaucrats who prepare their answers. We cannot expect lawmakers elected by the Japanese people nor ministers to control the bureaucracy.

Akira Amari, former minister in charge of the TPP talks, was an exception in that he was the only Cabinet member with full background knowledge of the secretive multinational negotiations. Since he stepped down over a graft scandal, no other minister answering questions on the TPP issues in the Diet knows what was actually discussed in the negotiations. No matter how much the opposition parties pressure the ministers, they don’t have the information to give out. It is politicians’ task to reveal classified information buried deep inside bureaucrats’ case files, but the situation in Japan falls far short of international standards.

Secret agreement remains in the dark

As a matter of fact, the former Democratic Party of Japan made an attempt to open the Pandora’s box of state secrets when it was in power. The party tried to confirm the existence of a secret agreement signed between Japan and the U.S. upon the U.S.’ return of Okinawa to Japan to allow the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons.

However, all their efforts turned out to be in vain. The Foreign Ministry maintained their stance that no such agreement exists, and the DPJ ended up accepting the government’s view. But there are documents backing the existence of the agreement and they do correspond with declassified U.S. government documents. In Japan, a wonderland of the bizarre, bureaucracy keeps state secrets to itself and reigns over politics.

<As a former NHK reporter and Washington D.C. bureau chief, Ryuichi Teshima is known for being in charge of the 11-day continuous live coverage of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks in the United States. He became independent in 2005.>

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