Japan's Citizens Fight for Privacy
A government plan to store personal data on an electronic network has unleashed an unprecedented nationwide rebellion.
LA TIMES | July 4 2005
By David Pilling
TOKYO — Yoshiaki Takashi, a tiny man dressed in a crumpled suit, wrinkles his brow as he strains to find the English he used when he was a young employee of a Japanese trading company. Now 68, his words come haltingly. But there is no doubting their force.
"The government has given a number to human beings as if we were animals or industrial products," he says, spitting out each syllable like a bitter pill. "I am furious at the men who want to know my private data when they have no business with such things."
The men who are so stirring Takashi's passions are the anonymous government bureaucrats who are implementing a scheme to store citizens' personal data on a nationwide electronic network. Known as Juki Net, the national database will keep records of the name, sex, date of birth and place of residence of every Japanese citizen, each of whom will be assigned an 11-digit code.
The scheme, launched in 2002, has unleashed an unprecedented nationwide rebellion among a citizenry normally known for its passivity and trust of a paternalistic government.
Several local governments, including Suginami ward in Tokyo and Yamatsuri town in far-off Fukushima prefecture, have refused to join the scheme. Others have said residents have the right to opt out.
No fewer than 35 lawsuits are trundling through the court system, challenging Juki Net on the grounds that it contravenes Japan's constitutional right to privacy.
Last month, in the second of the cases to be concluded, the district court in Kanazawa, on the northern Sea of Japan coast, ruled against the government. Lawyers acting for the plaintiffs have called the Kanazawa case a landmark ruling that could bolster the right to privacy and herald an era of a more active citizenry.
"It's very rare that people are saying no to a national policy of Japan," said Seiji Mizunaga, who represents Takashi and others in court.
Like Takashi, his lawyer links Juki Net with what he regards as other sinister developments that portend a dangerous encroachment of state power. He cites moves by local governments to force teachers to sing the national anthem, which many associate with Japan's military past, and the increasing use of Japan's armed forces abroad in defiance of its pacifist constitution.
But Hideki Yamaguchi, planning director at the Internal Affairs Ministry, cannot understand what all the fuss is about. The government is storing minimal information, he says, and strictly monitors the organizations that can access it.
What's more, he added, keeping data electronically is far more secure than the old paper-based local system, which required sending information through the post whenever records needed transferring.
"We are just trying to make things more efficient," Yamaguchi said.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan, says the government has failed to make a convincing case. "The Japanese are rightly criticized for being overly subservient to authority. This action shows a welcome lack of deference."
Although there is a history of civil disobedience, most famously the protests against the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty of 1960, Kingston said postwar Japan was built on an implicit contract between the government and its people.
"In the old system, there was a reciprocity in which everybody shared in the fruits of growth and the citizenry forgave the government its peccadilloes," Kingston said.
With high growth over and some of its benefits, such as jobs for life, fading, trust of the state is under strain, he says. "The unraveling of the social contract has undermined the government's credibility."
Takashi, who took part in the 1960 demonstrations, has lost what trust he ever had in the Japanese state. He fears that, if left unchallenged, the Juki Net will expand to become an electronic "Big Brother."
"They may start adding other information to my file: what books I read, what organizations I belong to, what films I watch," he said.
The system could even be preparation for the return of a military draft, he added.
Takashi's fears may sound like paranoia. But in normally subservient Japan, he is not alone.