Using freedom of information requests

In Japan’s press club system, authorities only share information that they want to make known. Freedom of information (FOI) requests, on the other hand, can unearth facts that the authorities would rather keep hidden. It is the authorities’ legal obligation to disclose information requested, as stipulated in the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs. For investigative journalists, FOI requests are often a key component of landing major scoops.

However, only a handful of reporters working for Japan’s mass media have mastered the art of FOI requests. Press club reporters are given a constant stream of information from the authorities, and as a result they have neither the time — nor, perhaps, the motivation — to actively search for additional information. This really is a waste of the media’s resources. 

FOI requests are one of investigative journalists’ most fundamental and valuable tools.

From forced sterilization to DNA collection

Waseda Chronicle frequently makes use of FOI requests in our investigations. Among the 13 investigative series we have published since our launch in February 2017, seven have involved FOI requests.

For example, we sent FOI requests to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and all 47 prefectures for our series “Forced Sterilization,” which exposed the human rights violations committed under Japan’s former Eugenic Protection Act. Using the documents we obtained, we revealed that, during the post-war years, the ministry had encouraged prefectures to compete over which could perform the greatest number of sterilization surgeries. Hokkaido, which led the country in number of surgeries performed, had even published a commemorative booklet celebrating 1,000 sterilizations.  

We also sent FOI requests to Japan’s National Police Agency for our series “On the Hunt for DNA.” As a result, we learned that the police were building a “suspect DNA database” with DNA gathered through investigations and bookings. And we discovered that roughly one in 100 citizen’s DNA has been registered to this database. Documents we received through our FOI request revealed that felonies such as murder, sexual assualt, and robbery made up only 5% of the database’s profiles, with the remaining 95% comprised of minor offenses. 

Three key points

Despite the great potential of FOI requests, the process isn’t always easy. After all, you’re dealing with an authority that doesn’t necessarily want to give up its information to you. Certain negotiation skills are necessary in order to make your request a success. The following are three key points to keep in mind.

1. Use your imagination

What information are you going after with your FOI request? This is simple enough to identity, if you use your imagination: In terms of the story you want to tell, what information might be out there? To use our DNA investigation as an example, after learning the total number of profiles in the police’s DNA database, we assumed there was no way that one in 100 people in Japan were suspected felons and that the database had to include DNA taken for minor offenses as well. The next step was to file a FOI request to learn the number of suspect DNA profiles by offense. In other cases, a source may mention that the authorities have such-and-such information, a great starting point for a FOI request.

2. Cast a wide net

Once you have identified the subject of your request, make sure to specify that you want “all documents” related to it. Without this designation, the authorities processing your request may only provide some of the relevant documents; in this way, they aren’t violating the FOI law, but they aren’t giving away all their secrets either. To use our series on forced sterilization as an example, if our FOI request demanded “documents recording communications between the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and prefectural governments regarding forced sterilization” but didn’t include the word “all,” the authorities could use it as an excuse not to disclose documents that cast them in a bad light.  

3. Use article 4, paragraph 2 of the FOI act

After you demand “all documents” pertaining to the subject of your FOI request, the contact point at the authority in question may respond that “the scope of this request is too broad; please identify the specific documents you require.” The success of your request hangs in the balance here.

But, naturally, you probably don’t know the specific documents that will be useful out of the vast records kept by public offices. The contact point at the relevant authority is the only one who can search through them. Article 4, paragraph 2 of the FOI act will be your greatest tool for moving your request forward.

The law states: “The head of the Administrative Organ shall endeavor to provide the Disclosure Requester with information that will be helpful in the amendment.”

This “amendment” can refer to specifying which documents are being requested. In other words, the authority must search for the relevant documents demanded by the requester. If the contact point isn’t cooperating to help identify documents, refer them to this clause of the FOI act — it is their legal duty to comply with it. 

I hope you will try your hand at FOI requests using the above three points. Even when you are very busy with research and reporting, FOI requests can be your aid in gathering documents. Make the authorities work for you.