Friday, November 12, 2010

Japan's Pentagon Papers

I'm in Osaka for Yomiuri TV's Wake Up Plus! again, and the theme of the hour is the posting on You Tube by a member of the Japanese Coast Guard of the entire video of the September collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard boat.

Yomiuri TV is playing a central role in this story, because the Coast Guard member, who is male and 43 but whose name is not yet public, recently called YTV and told his side of the story before coming clean to his boss. The Coast Guard member (whom I'll identify by the handle he used on You Tube, sengoku38) is now in his second day of questioning, though he has not been arrested.

There are lots of issues wrapped up in this story, but a few thoughts:

1. This story has the potential to become Japan's Pentagon Papers. While Americans and Europeans are familiar with WikiLeaks, Japan hasn't had to contend with this kind of leak before.
2. If I were a Japanese potential whistle-blower, this event would give me a degree of confidence. My hope is that there will be a trickle-down effect in other areas, such as companies and government organizations, where Japanese come forward with evidence of misconduct.
3. Acting against point two is that the Japanese public, from what I can tell, is not entirely supportive of sengoku38. Many of the people YTV found on the street were critical of sengoku38's decision to release secret information (though some questioned why the video itself should have been a secret).
4. There are a lot of contradictions in the Japanese government's response to the collision, as the lovely Takenaka Heizo, who sat to my right, pointed out. They arrested and detained for two weeks the captain of the Chinese trawler, and insisted they had grounds to do that. Then they set him free, all the while insisting they had video of the event that would make the situation clear. Instead of showing this video to the public, they showed a brief portion to Diet members. Now they are questioning for two days the man who has from the beginning said he posted the video on You Tube. How could there possibly be two days worth of questions in this situation?
5. Whether or not sengoku38 is arrested appears to be a political decision. The Kan government is watching public opinion closely. There is no consensus among lawyers and other academics I have seen interviewed on whether sengoku38 broke laws.

Initially, I felt this story was another distraction, another example of Japanese politicians playing domestic games with international consequences. To a certain extent, I still agree with that, but I am more in favor of a rigorous domestic debate about this story. As Jeff Rosen, a professor at George Washington University and an expert in this area, put it to me in an email overnight: "I hope this case will provoke widespread reflection in Japan about the values of free expression versus the government's interest in avoiding embarrassment in foreign policy: in practice, plugging leaks is difficult today, even if the Japanese government wants to take a hard line."

This will not be the last time a Japanese person leaks politically sensitive information to You Tube. A new era has begun, a little later in Japan than elsewhere.

1 comment:

Eric B. Schultz said...

I always read about this stuff feeling very ambivalent. . .I'm against stealing and selling what isn't yours, but I just wish our governments didn't keep so many secrets. It'll be very interesting to compare US and Japanese reactions to all these wicked-leaks.