Japan's Gross National Cool

Japan is reinventing superpower -- again. Instead of collapsing beneath its widely reported political and economic misfortunes, Japan's global cultural influence has quietly grown. From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks more like a cultural superpower today than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic one. But can Japan build on its mastery of medium to project an equally powerful national message?

On Sunday mornings, teenagers crowd the sidewalks of Tokyo's Shibuya district until they spill over the curbs and into the streets. They start at Hachiko Square, under a video monitor that takes up the entire face of a glass and steel high-rise, and spread out, 30 or 40 wide in the crosswalks. They mill around displays stacked with new sneakers -- Nike and New Balance from the United States, Puma and Adidas from Europe via New York. They gather in a small music store that specializes in the American vinyl records played in Tokyo's popular soul bars -- Grandmaster Flash, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament. They spend 370 yen (roughly $3) at Starbucks for a tall iced latte, which tastes just as it does in Washington, D.C., and is just as overpriced. Like any global metropolis, Tokyo serves up a substantial dose of American culture, particularly to its youth. Sometimes, like Starbucks or Nikes, it is authentic. Sometimes, like a "Harbard University" sweatshirt or a potato salad pizza, it is not. But cultural accuracy is not the point. Less important than authentic American origin is the whiff of American cool.

A few blocks from the Starbucks in Hachiko Square you will find Mandarake, a shop that sells used manga and anime (Japanese comic books and animation, respectively). There is no storefront full of dog-eared comics in plastic sleeves, just a maw of an entrance carved cavelike out of fake rock and flight after flight of stairs down to the basement-level shop. There, comic books and videotapes are stacked to the ceiling, alongside the toys and collectibles they inspired. The real esoterica are under glass, rare Godzilla and Ultraman action figures selling for hundreds of dollars each.

With a network of shops across Japan and a listing on the Nikkei Stock Index, Mandarake Incorporated is positioning for global expansion. New stores opened in Los Angeles in 1999 and in Bologna in 2001. Japan accounts for the bulk of Mandarake's revenue, said company president Masuzo Furukawa, "but in, say, about five to 10 years, it should be the other way around. The foreign market should be much bigger."

Already, "there isn't much of a time lag between what sells well in Japan and what sells in the United States," Furukawa said, comparing business in Tokyo and Los Angeles. The buxom, gun-toting pixies, cute monsters, and transforming robots that fill Mandarake in Shibuya show up in MTV graphics, street fashions, bars and dance clubs, and even museums. Last year, the Getty Center in Los Angeles debuted a blockbuster show on Japan's "Super Flat" movement -- young Japanese art inspired by the two-dimensional look of commercial cartoons.

Sometimes, like an Issey Miyake gown, the Japan that travels is authentic. Sometimes, like cream cheese-and-salmon sushi, it is not. But cultural accuracy is not the point. What matters is the whiff of Japanese cool.


Critics often reduce the globalization of culture to either the McDonald's phenomenon or the "world music" phenomenon. For the McDonald's camp, globalization is the process of large American multinationals overwhelming foreign markets and getting local consumers addicted to special sauce. In this case, culture flows from American power, and American supply creates demand. For the world music camp, globalization means that fresh, marginal culture reaches consumers in the United States through increased contact with the rest of the world. Here, too, culture flows from American power, with demand from rich Americans expanding distribution for Latin pop or Irish folk songs.

But Japanese culture has transcended U.S. demand or approval. Director and actor Takeshi Kitano, arguably the Japanese film industry's most noteworthy recent export, was first embraced in Europe, then in the United States. At this year's Berlin Film Festival, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away became the first animation feature ever to win a top festival prize. A major publishing show in Frankfurt, for the first time, opened an exhibition of Japanese manga. Namie Amuro, reigning "J-Pop" (Japan-Pop) music diva of the 1990s, built a huge fan base in Asia without ever going on tour in the United States. Millions of teenagers in Hong Kong, Seoul, and Bangkok covet the latest fashions from Tokyo, most of which never make it to New York. Japanese lifestyle magazines, some of the most lavishly produced in the world, are smuggled by illegal distributors across Asia as soon as they are on newsstands in Tokyo, though none has launched an American edition.

At the same time, Japan has made deep inroads into American culture, usually written off by the rest of the world as aggravatingly insular. Bestselling Sony Playstation and Nintendo home video games draw heavily on Japanese anime and manga for inspiration. So have recent Hollywood films, such as The Matrix, and television series, including director James Cameron's Dark Angel. "Tokyo is the real international capital of fashion," the style editor of the New York Times proposed this spring, spurning Paris, New York, and Milan as pretenders. Japanese anime-style cartoons currently fill the majority of time slots in the after-school and Saturday morning schedules on U.S. cable television. The cartoon and video game franchise Pokémon -- broadcast in 65 countries and translated into more than 30 languages -- even made the cover of Time magazine.

In the 1980s, Japan pioneered a new kind of superpower. Tokyo had no army to speak of, no puppet regimes to prop up, and no proxy wars to mind. Just an economy. What made Japan a superpower, more than just a wealthy country, was the way its great firms staked claim to a collective intellectual high ground that left competitors, even in the United States, scrambling to reverse-engineer Japanese successes. Seeking guidance on everything from "quality circles" to "just-in-time" inventory management, U.S. corporate executives bought stacks of books on Japanese management techniques. The key to Japan's economic ascendance was not ideology, at least not by Cold War standards; but it was a method, it drove the most dynamic economy of the era, and it was indisputably Japanese.

Fast forward to 2001. High incomes, long life expectancy, and many more of the statistics that mean anything in terms of quality of life still tilt in Japan's favor. But the national swagger is gone, a casualty of a decade-long recession. Gross domestic product is down; the yen is down; the Nikkei Stock Index hit a 17-year low; and full employment, practically a natural right in Japan, has been replaced by near-record rates of unemployment. Tokyo has tried to keep the International Monetary Fund from investigating its banking system, which is suspected to be in even worse shape than the finance ministry has admitted. A recent downgrade from Moody's Investors Service rates Japan only slightly more creditworthy than Botswana. The country limps its way into G-8 meetings and remains locked out of the U.N. Security Council.

Yet Japan is reinventing superpower again. Instead of collapsing beneath its political and economic misfortunes, Japan's global cultural influence has only grown. In fact, from pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and food to art, Japan has far greater cultural influence now than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic superpower.

Its cultural sway is not quite like that of American culture abroad, which, even in its basest forms, tends to reflect certain common values -- at the very least, American-style capitalism and individualism. Contemporary Japanese culture outside Japan can seem shallow by comparison. Or it can reflect the contradictory values of a nation in flux, a superficiality that prompted the Japanese art magazine BT to equate contemporary Japanese culture with "Super Flat" art, "devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously." "We don't have any religion," painter Takashi Murakami told the magazine, a bit more cynically. "We just need the big power of entertainment."

But gradually, over the course of an otherwise dismal decade, Japan has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture -- a technique that has contributed mightily to U.S. hegemony around the world. If Japan sorts out its economic mess and military angst, and if younger Japanese become secure in asserting their own values and traditions, Tokyo can regain the role it briefly assumed at the turn of the 19th century, when it simultaneously sought to engage the West and to become a military and cultural power on its own terms.


I spent three months last year traveling around Japan, interviewing artists, directors, scientists, designers, and culture mavens. Many of them seemed surprised at the idea of Japanese cultural might abroad. They tended to think very little about foreign audiences. What they talked about instead was foreign inspiration. At times, it seems almost a strange point of pride, a kind of one-downsmanship, to argue just how little Japan there is in modern Japan. Ironically, that may be a key to the spread of Japanese cool.

"I can't always distinguish elements of traditional Japanese culture from Japanese culture invented for tourists," confessed Toshiya Ueno, a sociology professor at Chubu University and, in his spare time, a techno deejay with gigs in Tokyo and Amsterdam.

"During the First World War, in Japan, already there was a strong argument about overcoming modernity," Ueno said, sitting in his cluttered university office behind two turntables and a mixing board. "Already, postmodern eclecticism was surfacing." In other words, Japan was postmodern before postmodernism was trendy, fusing elements of other national cultures into one almost-coherent whole. It makes sense: Japan's history is filled with examples of foreign inspiration and cultural fusion, from its kanji character system to its ramen noodles.

Consider the case of a new band, Lipless X Sister, and a new dance, the Pada Pada. Like most Japanese pop music acts, Lipless X Sister is a concept group, dreamed up by record producers and marketing executives and then assembled through auditions. In this case, the concept was 18- to 22-year-old girls with 2-year-old children. A producer explained the band's name to local press: "You can like them. But they're mothers, so you can't kiss them."

Their debut performance took place in March 2001 on a makeshift stage outside 109, a tall shiny department store in Shibuya that, for a few million of Japan's teenage girls, is the most stylish, most important, and most exciting place in the world. The girls in the band, like every girl in every magazine that season, had light cedar tresses, denim skirts, and tight tops with vintage sports lettering (no doubt all of it was for sale inside). They wheeled their kids out in strollers, all in a line. Then they started to sing. "Pada Pada mama, Pada Pada mama."

A new dance then sweeping through Tokyo's clubs, the Pada Pada is "uniquely Japanese," said Katsuo Shimizu, a culture columnist at the daily Asahi Shimbun, touting it as the first popular dance step to originate in Japan. In fact, the Pada Pada looks like nothing if not the Macarena. The dance didn't seem uniquely Japanese. It didn't seem at all Japanese. But then, what should one expect, geishas grooving on a Shinto arch?

The Pada Pada doesn't require a great cultural leap for foreigners. The band has an English name, not that it makes much sense to a native speaker, but English words travel well. If the Pada Pada spreads across Asia, however, it will be on the strength of Japanese pop songs, Japanese music videos starring Japanese girls with light cedar hair, and Japanese cool. Maybe there is not much traditionally Japanese about any of it. But if that is a requirement for national branding, American pop culture is hardly more respectful of traditional Americana -- unless you count when Madonna wears a cowboy hat.


Japan's most visible pop icon, Sanrio's cartoon cat Hello Kitty, takes the national ambiguity of the Pada Pada further. Kitty is not actually supposed to be Japanese. In fact, Kitty's last name, announced for the first time in spring 2001 in Sanrio's official fan magazine, is White.

Kitty White? Kitty is a WASP!

Hello Kitty drives an empire worth almost $1 billion in global sales per year. "From Target to McDonald's, she went big time," wrote Asian-American pop culture magazine Giant Robot, proclaiming her the best "Corporate Whore" of 2001. Sanrio licenses so many products with Hello Kitty's likeness that a company spokesman could not confirm the current count. Put it between 12,000, the estimate he gave, and 15,000, a number that is widely reported. You can buy individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes. You can buy a toaster that burns Hello Kitty's face into a piece of bread. You can buy a Hello Kitty vibrator. "We don't have such strict regulations," the spokesman said. "Hard alcohol, maybe that would not be appropriate."

Hello Kitty's longtime designer, Yuko Yamaguchi, met me in a small Sanrio conference room, dressed in dark jeans and a baggy shirt. A cell phone and a dozen Hello Kitty dangles hung from a chain around her neck. So which is Kitty, foreign or Japanese? "When Kitty-chan was born, in those days it was very rare for Japanese people to go abroad," she said. "So people yearned for products with English associations. There was an idea that if Kitty-chan spoke English, she would be very fashionable."

Today, teenagers and 20-somethings in the United States and elsewhere buy Hello Kitty purses and cell phone cases as icons of Tokyo pop chic. In the 1980s, however, Sanrio's American-based marketing team had to customize Hello Kitty for American audiences, which they considered a tough sell. Often, that meant designing two Kitties, one for Japanese and one for Americans. "Purple and pink were very strong," Yamaguchi said, recalling Sanrio's American market research. "Blue, yellow, and red were believed to be taboo."

"There were also motifs that were taboo in the United States. There was a snail, one of Kitty-chan's friends. When there is a rainstorm, Kitty-chan has an umbrella and a flower, and beside Kitty-chan is a snail. In the United States, that was not accepted, and there was a request to eliminate the snail," she said. "Differences in color were easy, but I had difficulty accommodating all the little requests -- there were so many."

"Now, there is no difference in design. Now, we have the same Kitty-chan in both markets," she said. They have to. Sanrio's head of marketing for Asia, Shunji Onishi, described the company's disastrous attempt in the 1990s to customize Hello Kitty for Taiwan and Hong Kong, two of Sanrio's strongest markets. They put Kitty in local clothes and surroundings, and the products sat on the shelves. "They know Kitty is from Japan. That's why they like it," he said. "Especially the younger generation." Even if she is actually English? "Kitty has a sort of independent existence," Yamaguchi answered, hedging on nationality a bit. "I let her transcend the borders of London." A regular Davos cat.


Hello Kitty is Western, so she will sell in Japan. She is Japanese, so she will sell in the West. It is a marketing boomerang that firms like Sanrio, Sony, and Nintendo manage effortlessly. And it is part of the genius behind Japanese cultural strength in a global era that has many countries nervous about cultural erosion.

Imagine for a moment if modern Japan were more like France, less culturally plastic and more anxious that globalization might erode its unique national character. Its cultural reach might look something like that of Japanese sumo -- popular at home but stubbornly closed to foreign influence, and as a result, largely invisible outside Japan.

Tokyo's official sumo museum, maintained by the Japanese Sumo Association, ought to be one of the city's big foreign tourist attractions; instead, it is a dreary, one-room obscurity. The sumo association sells no official merchandise, at home or abroad. Occasionally, the association will hold an exhibition match outside Japan but only when a foreign city campaigns for a visit, and then never more than once or twice in a year. It is a marked contrast to the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA), for instance, which in recent years has aggressively promoted its sport around the world and hinted that it might place a new team in Mexico City, or even a whole division of teams in Europe.

It is no wonder why the NBA -- and the U.S. football and baseball leagues -- takes a global approach. Foreign fans mean extra licensing and broadcasting revenue. And if a foreign star emerges, you have the possibility for another Ichiro. The day Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki left Japan to bat leadoff for the Seattle Mariners, Japanese sports shops were already filled with official Mariners jerseys and baseball caps in anticipation. During the season, Japanese television covered every Mariners game live, despite a 12-hour time difference.

By that logic, the fact that 25 percent of the wrestlers in sumo's top two divisions are foreign-born should be great for the sport -- it raises the level of competition and offers up hometown heroes to potentially lucrative foreign broadcasting markets. But instead, it is a source of great anxiety. Sumo is a rare thing, a part of Japan's commercial pop culture that looks much as it did hundreds of years ago.

Sumo is seldom broadcast outside Japan, but Hawaiian television carries all the tournaments. So a tall, skinny kid named Chad Rowan grew up watching Konishiki (whose given name is Salevaa Atisanoe), a fellow American from Hawaii who left the United States to become sumo's first 600-pound wrestler. He also knew Takamiyama, another Hawaiian, the Jackie Robinson of foreign sumo wrestlers, who endured hate mail and death threats as he rose though the sumo ranks in the 1960s. Rowan never considered wrestling, himself. But he knew it was a big deal when Takamiyama, now a powerful coach, offered Rowan a chance to go to Japan with him and train. Rowan took the name Akebono and became the first foreigner the sumo association would declare a Yokuzuna, a grand champion.

When I arrived at Azumazeki Heya, the training club on the eastern edge of Tokyo where Akebono now coaches alongside his former mentor, a dozen wrestlers were waiting for their turns in the ring. Even so, you could not miss Akebono, not at 6 feet 8 inches and 512 pounds. "Osu osu osu!!" he yelled, crossing his arms and resting them on the bulge of his stomach. "Push push push!!" A larger wrestler leaned stiff-legged on a smaller one, and the smaller one pushed him from one side of the dirt ring to the other, and back, and again, and back. Sisyphus with a fleshy boulder. The smaller man gasped and collapsed to the dirt, his sweat turning it to reddish mud. "What's wrong with your legs?" Akebono taunted in Japanese, grinning. "You can go for 30 minutes, can't you? It's only five or six minutes and you look exhausted!" Akebono speaks only Japanese at the heya, even with Azumazeki (the name Takamiyama took when he retired from competition, instead of his given name, Jesse Kuhaulua).

Wrestlers live at their heya, train at their heya, and eat at their heya. For a foreigner like Akebono, the instant immersion is twofold: immersion in sumo and immersion in Japan. Not everyone would face that kind of cultural rebirth for a chance at success in the most foreign of sports, and that is part of the point. "It's not easy, man. It's not easy," said Azumazeki, in a Louis Armstrong rasp that has made his voice one of the most recognizable in Japan. Although he also discovered Konishiki abroad, he does the vast majority of his recruiting in Japan. "Back in Hawaii, my relatives and friends introduce us to kids," he said. "I don't encourage them. I prepare them for the hardship." He explained that he is looking for more than just athleticism and a frame six meals a day can bulk up. "We try to find someone who would get along with Japan, who wants to be a Japanese kind of person."

Heya masters like Azumazeki, like coaches in any sport, are under pressure to produce bigger and stronger athletes. At the same time, there is a strong stigma against traveling the world in search of foreign giants. If all else fails, the sumo association will enforce a seldom-mentioned quota of 40 foreign wrestlers in sumo at one time -- or about 15 percent of the total. But all else has yet to fail.


A cultural superpower needs a healthy economic base but not necessarily a healthy economy. Perversely, recession may have boosted Japan's national cool, discrediting Japan's rigid social hierarchy and empowering young entrepreneurs. It may also have loosened the grip a big-business career track had over so much of Japan's workforce, who now face fewer social stigmas for experimenting with art, music, or any number of similar, risky endeavors. "There's a new creativeness here because there's less money," said Tokyo-based architect Mark Dytham, a London transplant. "Good art is appearing, young strong art. Young fashion is appearing." Graphic designer Michael Frank, who shares a flourishing downtown studio with Dytham, agreed: "A lot of interesting smaller magazines appeared in the last four or five years. A lot of small little businesses, people running their own shops, people running their own music labels, people running their own clubs. Bigger companies are starting to pick up on those little things and support them."

Meanwhile, a constellation of factors distinct from the economy and its woes has kept yen flowing to the pop industries and other cultural media that Japan projects around the world so effectively: demographics that favor youth and their whims, a reliable demand for luxury goods, and a reputation for cutting-edge technology.

A generation of declining birthrates has filled Tokyo with one-child families. In scarcity, there is power. Not political power, not yet anyway, but consumer power, lots of it. "[Children] sense that they are rare," said Mariko Kuno Fujiwara, of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a sociological think tank attached to one of Japan's major advertising agencies. And so they tend to be spoiled. Fujiwara recalled one newspaper headline -- "Our Children Kings" -- with a laugh. Tokyo's youth spend an average of $150 a month on cell phone bills alone. They propel a dizzying turnover in street fashion. They drive the second largest music industry in the world, by far the largest in Asia and one that is second only to that of the United States. At an HMV music store in Ginza one afternoon, I counted more than 100 people in line, and not one of them looked to be over 30. Japanese firms have strong financial incentives to hew to the demands of a generation with high disposable income, regardless of economic ups and downs.

Luxury goods have also fared well in Japan's slack economy. Japanese consumers haven't stopped buying high-end products, as a number of sociologists I spoke with stressed. They simply save up longer for them. So even as the economy languishes, rush hour in Tokyo is like a luxury car show. Louis Vuitton, which opened its Tokyo boutique in the midst of the current recession and marked up prices 50 percent over Paris shops, makes more money in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Sony electronics are also frequently more expensive in Japan than abroad, one Sony industrial designer explained, because Japanese consumers strongly prefer lighter materials and sleeker designs, even if they cost more. A sliver of a minidisc player in pumpkin orange and lime green, a narrow cell phone with a big color screen for Web browsing, a tiny MP3 personal stereo that clips directly in your ear -- these are goods that inspire technolust in the levelest of heads, Japanese or foreign.


Last summer, the prestigious New York art gallery P.S.1 announced an exhibition called Buzz Club. "Animation, cell phone art, fashion, sculpture, anime, films, elaborate graphics, popular action figurines and models, electronic music, and sound and light installations," the gallery promised, billing it as "the largest exhibition of Japanese pop culture creators ever assembled outside of Japan." Exhibitors included Groovisions, a design group most famous for dreaming up a nationally ambiguous cartoon girl named Chappie, and an electronic music and design collective called Delaware. Global Japan had achieved the New York scene's seal of approval.

There is much more to Japan than the national cool of Buzz Club. Most foreigners will never penetrate the barriers of language and culture well enough to see Japan as the average Japanese sees it. But that is part of Japan's secret to thriving amidst globalization. There exists a Japan for Japanese and a Japan for the rest of the world. Often, in the case of youth fads, for instance, there is a good deal of overlap. Sometimes, in the case of sumo or the layout of a typical suburban house or the variety shows that proliferate across Japanese television networks, there is none.

More than 60 years ago, in a classic study called Mirror, Sword, and Jewel, a German economist at Tokyo Imperial University named Kurt Singer discussed the contrast between the "plasticity" and "endurance" of Japanese culture, the ability to absorb and adapt foreign influences while still retaining an intact cultural core. Yet for Singer writing in the 1930s, the question was "why this gifted and active nation has produced so little that has been found acceptable by other countries in an age open to all foreign influences."

Today, Japan has outgrown that question, thanks largely to the qualities of Japanese culture that Singer himself identified. In fact, in cultural terms at least, Japan has become one of a handful of perfect globalization nations (along with the United States). It has succeeded not only in balancing a flexible, absorptive, crowd-pleasing, shared culture with a more private, domestic one but also in taking advantage of that balance to build an increasingly powerful global commercial force. In other words, Japan's growing cultural presence has created a mighty engine of national cool.

It is impossible to measure national cool. National cool is a kind of "soft power" -- a term Harvard dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined more than a decade ago to explain the nontraditional ways a country can influence another country's wants, or its public's values. And soft power doesn't quantify neatly. How much of modern American hegemony is due to the ideological high ground of its democracy, for instance, how much to its big corporate franchises, to Hollywood, to rock music and blue jeans, or to its ability to fascinate as well as intimidate? National cool is an idea, a reminder that commercial trends and products, and a country's knack for spawning them, can serve political and economic ends. As Nye argued in this magazine more than a decade ago, "There is an element of triviality and fad in popular behavior, but it is also true that a country that stands astride popular channels of communication has more opportunities to get its messages across and to affect the preferences of others."

However, while Japan sits on that formidable reserve of soft power, it has few means to tap it. National cool ought to help Japan infuse its universities, research labs, companies, and arts with foreign talent. But in a vast public opinion study conducted throughout Asia in the late 1990s, respondents who admired Japanese culture and Japanese consumer products thought little of the idea of studying or working in Japan, even less of moving there for good. And as open as Japanese culture is to foreign influences, there is neither political nor public support in Japan for immigration, or for immigrants.

When Nye first wrote about soft power, he rightly believed that Japan's insularity kept it from taking advantage of its formidable economic soft power. Today, a decade of globalization has made Japan somewhat less inward looking, but a decade of recession and political turmoil has made many Japanese seem less secure in some of their fundamental values, undermining traditional ideas in everything from business culture to family life. Those values may rebound with the economy, or they may transform into something new -- a national uncertainty infused with even more anxiety by the demographic changes that will accompany the graying of Japan's population.

Japan's history of remarkable revivals suggests that the outcome of that transformation is more likely to be rebirth than ruin. Standing astride channels of communication, Japan already possesses a vast reserve of potential soft power. And with the cultural reach of a superpower already in place, it's hard to imagine that Japan will be content to remain so much medium and so little message.


The World's Right to Know

During the last decade, 26 countries have enacted new legislation giving their citizens access to government information. Why? Because the concept of freedom of information is evolving from a moral indictment of secrecy to a tool for market regulation, more efficient government, and economic and technological growth.

History may well remember the era that spanned the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the World Trade Center as the Decade of Openness. Social movements around the world seized on the demise of communism and the decay of dictatorships to demand more open, democratic, responsive governments. And those governments did respond. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin partially opened the Soviet archives.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton declassified more government secrets than all his predecessors put together. Truth commissions on three continents exposed disappearances and genocide. Prosecutors hounded state terrorists, courts jailed generals, and the Internet subverted censorship and eroded the monopoly of state-run media.

Most striking of all, during that decade, 26 countries -- from Japan to Bulgaria, Ireland to South Africa, and Thailand to Great Britain -- enacted formal statutes guaranteeing their citizens' right of access to government information. In the first week after the Japanese access law went into effect in 2001, citizens filed more than 4,000 requests. More than half a million Thais utilized the Official Information Act in its first three years. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ranks as the most heavily invoked access law in the world. In 2000, the U.S. federal government received more than 2 million FOIA requests from citizens, corporations, and foreigners (the law is open to "any person"), and it spent about $1 per U.S. citizen ($253 million) to administer the law. Multilateral institutions are also trying to meet freedom-of-information challenges from their member states (as in the European Union (EU), where Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are criticizing the culture of secrecy favored by Germany and France) or from civil society (the World Bank is now fumbling with a half-hearted disclosure policy).

In the aftermath of September 11, as control of information emerged as a crucial weapon in the war against terror, troubling signs emerged that governments might be shutting the door on the Decade of Openness. But worldwide, new security measures and censorship laws have been few and far between. Canada contemplated but then backed away from giving its justice minister the power to waive its long-standing access law on an emergency, terrorism-related basis. India passed the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, which threatened jail terms for journalists who didn't cooperate with law enforcement, but no such actions have yet occurred. Great Britain delayed implementing its new information access law until 2005 but said the delay had nothing to do with September 11.

Ironically, secrecy has made the most dramatic comeback in the country that purports to be the most democratic. Even before the al Qaeda attacks, the Bush administration claimed executive privilege in several high-profile requests for information, fighting off congressional calls for the names of private-sector advisors on energy policy and stalling the release of Reagan-era documents under the Presidential Records Act. But September 11 turned this tendency into a habit, sometimes justifiably (as in details of special operations in Afghanistan) but more often reflexively: In recent months, White House officials granted former presidents veto power over release of their administrations' records, ordered agencies to use the most restrictive and legalistic response possible for FOIA requests, and denounced leaks even as mayors and local law enforcement complained about the federal government's failure to share information.

The Bush administration's secrecy obsession will likely prove self-defeating, because like markets, governments don't work well in secret. The most effective opponents of the president's yen for secret military tribunals were not civil libertarians but career government prosecutors and military lawyers, who insisted on more open trials and more due process on legal and constitutional grounds, as well as for reasons of efficiency. The prosecutors know what President Bush does not -- that openness fights terrorism by empowering citizens, weeding out the worst policies, and holding officials accountable (not least the foreign despots who are now temporary U.S. allies in the war against terrorism). More broadly, the motivations behind the freedom-of-information movement in countries outside the United States generally remain unchanged by the war on terrorism. Openness advocates are successfully challenging entrenched state and bureaucratic power by arguing that the public's right to know is not just a moral imperative; it is also an indispensable tool for thwarting corruption, waste, and poor governance.


Most of the freedom-of-information laws in the world today came about because of competition for political power between parliaments and administrations, ruling and opposition parties, and present and prior regimes. In fact, the first freedom-of-information law -- Sweden's 1766 Freedom of the Press Act -- was driven by party politics, as the new majority in parliament sought to see documents that the previous government had kept secret.

Likewise, the U.S. FOIA, which has emerged as a model for reformers worldwide, was not the product of democratic enlightenment, but rather Democratic partisanship. The legislation emerged from 10 years of congressional hearings (1955–65) as the Democratic majority sought access to deliberations of the Republican executive branch under former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The U.S. FOIA as it exists today -- with broad coverage, narrow exemptions, and powerful court review of government decisions to withhold information -- is actually an amended version of the 1966 act, revised in 1974 by a Democratic Congress over a veto by then Republican President Gerald Ford.

The U.S. FOIA would not be as far-reaching had it not been for Watergate. Indeed, scandals have remained a catalyst for freedom-of-information movements worldwide. Canada passed its freedom-of-information statute in 1982 following scandals over police surveillance and government regulation of industry. Public outcry over conditions in the meatpacking industry and the administration of a public blood bank prompted Ireland to pass a similar law in 1997. Japan's 1999 national access law followed two decades of scandals, from the Lockheed bribery case in the 1970s to the bureaucracy's cover-up of HIV contamination of the blood supply in the early 1990s. Japan's information disclosure movement started 20 years ago as local access ordinances unearthed systematic falsifications of government accounts and exposed widespread corruption within the Japanese public works and construction industries -- a political bribery system that bulwarked 40 years of one-party rule in Japan.

While the eruption of scandals has been a catalyst for reform in countries with a long democratic tradition, the collapse of totalitarian regimes helped drive the freedom-of-information movement elsewhere in the world. In Europe, where administrative reform in most former communist countries bogged down in the early 1990s (due to frequent changes in governments and a corrosive debate about banning former Communist Party officials from public office), Hungary took the initiative and passed a freedom-of-information act in 1992. The Hungarian law was, in part, the new regime's revenge against its communist predecessors, opening their files and making them accountable for previous misdeeds. Reassured by the successful model in Hungary, pressured by "open society" nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as those funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and eager to integrate into the EU and NATO, other former communist countries engaged in the freedom-of-information debate in the late 1990s. New freedom-of-informatiom legislation was enacted in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria between 1998 and 2000 -- and even in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2001, at the behest of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Thailand's 1997 Official Information Act was the culmination of a political reform process that began in 1992 with mass demonstrations against a military regime and became even more urgent with Thailand's economic crisis in 1997. One request filed by a disgruntled mother changed the country's entire primary- and secondary-education system. In post-apartheid South Africa, the 1994 constitution under which Nelson Mandela came to power included a specific provision that guarantees citizens' access to state-held information, and South Africa's implementation law, passed in 2000, is probably the strongest in the world.


Today, as a consequence of globalization, the very concept of freedom of information is expanding from the purely moral stance of an indictment of secrecy to include a more value-neutral meaning -- as another form of market regulation, of more efficient administration of government, and as a contributor to economic growth and the development of information industries. Hungary's adoption of a freedom-of-information statute, for example, signaled a rejection of its communist past. But perhaps even more important, the law combined new access rights to government records with strong data protection provisions for business, in an attempt to attract German corporate investment by conforming to European -- and particularly German -- standards that guard trade secrets and personal information.

Financial transparency measures do not necessarily help the cause of political reform, but agile advocates have harnessed the language of transparency to push for political liberalization at the local level. In fact, legal reformers in China, as well as the Communist Party's anticorruption activists, are using this argument to help open the decision-making process in local and provincial governments. Their argument, which acquires greater weight as China enters the World Trade Organization (WTO), is that regulating governments and corporations (especially global ones) may be done more efficiently by promoting full disclosure of their activities, rather than by relying on multiple bureaucracies in multiple countries that provide multiple opportunities for corruption. Such efforts to promote local transparency are more likely to succeed than would any attempt to implement a national freedom-of-information statute -- especially one that would apply to law enforcement or national security or Communist Party deliberations.

Membership in a supranational organization, such as the WTO, does not always encourage transparency -- as when NATO refuses to release files without a consensus among all NATO members or requires Poland to adopt a new law on state secrets. But more often than not, supranational organizations create a demand for greater access to information, both between and within countries. These global or regional governance institutions set up multiple information flows among national governments, multinational organizations, the media, and private citizens' groups, who use each party's information to leverage the others, often with significant domestic impact. For example, the Slovakian press reported eu criticism of misleading economic statistics under the government of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. This negative publicity led to the revamping of the state statistical office and contributed to both Meciar's political decline and Slovakia's formal adoption of a freedom-of-information law.


Making good use of both moral and efficiency claims, the international freedom-of-information movement stands on the verge of changing the definition of democratic governance. The movement is creating a new norm, a new expectation, and a new threshold requirement for any government to be considered a democracy. Yet at the same time, the disclosure movement does not even know it is a movement; its members are constantly reinventing the wheel and searching for relevant models. Moreover, entrenched state interests continue to launch vigorous counterattacks in the United States and abroad, citing national security and the need for privacy in the deliberative process as counterweights to freedom-of-information arguments. The ideal openness regime would have governments publishing so much that the formal request for specific information (and the resulting administrative and legal process) would become almost unnecessary. Until that time, openness advocates have reached consensus on the five fundamentals of effective freedom-of-information statutes:

First, such statutes should begin with the presumption of openness. In other words, the state does not own the information; it belongs to the citizens. Traditionally, of course, "L'etat, c'est moi," as France's King Louis XIV declared. Reversing this legal claim and its legacy in official secrecy acts (which turn a blind eye to the public's "right to know") remains the top priority for freedom-of-information movements.

Second, any exceptions to the presumption of openness should be as narrow as possible and written in statute, not subject to bureaucratic variation and the change of administrations. Reformers in Japan point to overbroad privacy exemptions as a huge obstacle, since they allow bureaucrats to withhold any personal identifier whatsoever, whether or not releasing it would invade the privacy of the person. Consequently, released documents look like Swiss cheese, with every official's name deleted, even the prime minister's. 

Third, any exceptions to release should be based on identifiable harm to specific state interests, although many statutes just recite general categories like "national security" or "foreign relations." Most of this is common sense: It's easy to see the harm from releasing data like the design of chemical warheads, identities of spies who could be killed if exposed, bottom-line positions in upcoming treaty negotiations, and the like. But most government secrets are far more subjective and merely time-sensitive. Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has said most of the secrets he saw in his government career could easily be released within 10 years of their creation.

Fourth, even where there is identifiable harm, the harm must outweigh the public interests served by releasing the information. No public interest is served by releasing the design of a nuclear weapon, but the policies that govern the use of nuclear weapons are at the heart of governance and public debate. The United States has even released specifics on the recruitment and payment of spies when that information was necessary in a legal prosecution (another form of public interest), such as in the trial of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

Fifth, a court, an information commissioner, an ombudsman, or other authority that is independent of the original bureaucracy holding the information should resolve any dispute over access. In New Zealand, the ombudsman can overrule agency withholdings. In Japan, a three-judge panel decides appeals. And in the United States, a federal judge recently ordered release under FOIA of energy policy records that Vice President Dick Cheney had refused to give to Congress.

In seeking to implement these fundamental principles, the freedom-of-information movement may be focusing too much on statutes and legal language. Free media and active civil society may be more important than laws: In the Philippines, for example, without a formal access law, the media and NGOs have opened government records and even brought down former President Joseph Estrada. The habits of dissent and resistance may also hurt the movement, since activists have to learn to work with as well as against governments to achieve real openness. Bureaucracies will always confound citizens unless reformers find ways to change bureaucratic incentives (rewarding and promoting officials who are responsive) and to develop some appreciation for administrators' resource constraints and political pressures.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge for the freedom-of-information movement will be the need for governments and citizens alike to adapt to a new cultural and psychological climate. In colloquial Japanese, for example, the term okami (god) is commonly used to refer to government officials. "You can’t complain against the gods," one Japanese activist told a newspaper, summarizing the difficulty felt by ordinary people confronting the government. Or in the words of the Bulgarian activist Gergana Jouleva, "Democracy is not an easy task neither for the authorities nor for the citizens."