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Court orders disclosure of secret Okinawa papers

Date Posted: 2010-04-14

Tokyo’s High Court has ordered the government to open its files and release once-secret documents pertaining to agreements surrounding the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from the United States.

The court decision on a lawsuit filed by 25 plaintiffs who maintained Japan had secretly agreed to cover reversion costs that the official, public documents stipulated were to be paid by the U.S. government, included ¥100,000 damage settlements to each of the 25 who initiated the suit more than one year ago. The court acknowledged that the plaintiffs’ rights were violated by the central government decision to withhold the information.

The Foreign and Finance ministries had refused to disclose the documents, maintaining they didn’t exist or had been discarded if they had ever existed. At the outset, 63 individuals were demanding answers, leading to the March 2009 lawsuit by the 25 plaintiffs. The ruling is being hailed as a victory because the documents the 25 wanted released had already been declassified by the United States. The documents detailed a secret agreement between Japan and America over who was to pay for financing Okinawa’s reversion.

The High Court judge the two ministries did not conduct “reasonable and thorough” searches for the documents. Judge Norihiko Sugihara did note his belief some of the files being sought by the plaintiffs had actually been destroyed by government officials, then controlled by the Liberal Democratic Party.

Presiding Judge Norihiko Sugihara said that neither ministry conducted a "reasonable and thorough" search for the documents, but added he suspected some files might have actually been destroyed. "In general, under a government that is concealing the existence of secret pacts from the public, the secrecy of the documents . . . is absolute and it cannot be said there is no suspicion the documents have already been destroyed," he said.

Judge Sugihara ordered the financial payment to the plaintiffs because he said the Foreign Ministry — which when the suit was filed was led by then Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone — "made light of the people's right to know. The foreign minister refused to change his stance by denying the existence of the secret pacts and the recorded documents and handed down (a rejection) without taking measures normally necessary in confirming the existence of the documents, betraying the expectations of the plaintiffs," Sugihara ruled.

Plaintiff Takichi Nishiyama was first to praise the ruling. The 78-year-old had been convicted of being involved in leaking government documents on the secret pact on Okinawa's reversion.

The whole case began when Okinawa’s former governor, Masahide Ota, became impressed with the United States records keeping at its National Archives and Records Administration, and ordered creation of a Prefectural Archives. That ultimately led to a historian, Kazuhiko Nakamoto, spending a half-dozen years delving into American archives to discover the secret agreements.

One specific document showed that Japan secretly spent $4 million to pay for costs the U.S. was supposed to bear responsibility for in paying to restore farmland in Okinawa that had been used by U.S. troops. Ota says he wished the documents had been uncovered while he was governor, because “as governor I didn’t grasp the whole picture of the area under my jurisdiction.

“It stirred concerns that Okinawa issues, such as the U.S. base problem, were being discussed while the local people were being kept out of the loop,” Ota says, noting that information could have been valuable in dealing with military issues such as the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.”

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