Eat, Drink, Be Corrupt

Some 20 years of press attention and local activism by Japan’s relatively small population of private attorneys produced more than 400 freedom-of-information ordinances at the local and prefecture levels. The attorneys, or "citizen ombudsmen," achieved particular success using local access regulations to expose national scandals, such as the billions of yen spent by government officials ...

Some 20 years of press attention and local activism by Japan's relatively small population of private attorneys produced more than 400 freedom-of-information ordinances at the local and prefecture levels. The attorneys, or "citizen ombudsmen," achieved particular success using local access regulations to expose national scandals, such as the billions of yen spent by government officials on food and beverages while entertaining each other. In one famous 1993 case, city records in Sendai revealed that a party of six officials had consumed 30 bottles of beer, 26 decanters of sake, and 4 bottles of chilled sake, for what one commentator called "a rollicking good time" -- at taxpayers' expense. As a result of such revelations, between 1995 and 1997, Japan's 47 prefectures cut their food-and-beverage budgets by more than half, saving 12 billion yen (about $100 million at the time).

Even more important, the information disclosure movement helped create a new political culture in Japan. Not only did Japanese citizens line up by the thousands to file information requests at government offices on April 2, 2001, when the new national law went into effect, but political candidates also vied to outdo each other in pledges of openness. In fact, the newly elected governor of Nagano prefecture moved his office from the third floor to the first, encasing it with windows and adopting an open-door policy -- the personification of the new politics of openness in Japan.

Some 20 years of press attention and local activism by Japan’s relatively small population of private attorneys produced more than 400 freedom-of-information ordinances at the local and prefecture levels. The attorneys, or "citizen ombudsmen," achieved particular success using local access regulations to expose national scandals, such as the billions of yen spent by government officials on food and beverages while entertaining each other. In one famous 1993 case, city records in Sendai revealed that a party of six officials had consumed 30 bottles of beer, 26 decanters of sake, and 4 bottles of chilled sake, for what one commentator called "a rollicking good time" — at taxpayers’ expense. As a result of such revelations, between 1995 and 1997, Japan’s 47 prefectures cut their food-and-beverage budgets by more than half, saving 12 billion yen (about $100 million at the time).

Even more important, the information disclosure movement helped create a new political culture in Japan. Not only did Japanese citizens line up by the thousands to file information requests at government offices on April 2, 2001, when the new national law went into effect, but political candidates also vied to outdo each other in pledges of openness. In fact, the newly elected governor of Nagano prefecture moved his office from the third floor to the first, encasing it with windows and adopting an open-door policy — the personification of the new politics of openness in Japan.

Thomas Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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