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Data Protection in Japan

July 15, 2009

Comprehensive data protection in Japan is fairly recent. Until 2003, data protection was still governed under much two earlier ‘ information society initiatives: firstly, the Act for the Protection of Computer Processed Personal Data Held by Administrative Organisation (1988) and secondly, the Protection of Computer Processed Personal Data Act (1990), which are based on the 1980 OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data. These laws were limited an applied only to the state, and within that, only to some national government organisations rather than all of them.

Lawyers and those concerned with privacy within and without government were well aware of these limitations, and in the late 90s, a special Privacy Issues Study Working Group was set upby the Electronic Commerce Promotion Council of Japan (ECom). This committee issued Guidelines Concerning Protection of Personal Data in Electronic Commerce in the Private Sector in March 1998. The Chair of that committee, Professor Masao Horibe, provides an account here.

Subsequently, a Personal Data Protection Legislation Special Committee was established in January 2000 under the Advanced Information and Telecommunications Society Promotion Headquarters (now the IT Strategic Headquarters), a body responsible directly to the Japanese cabinet. This body has issued all the laws and directions regarding IT, e-Japan etc.

The need to “protect personal data” (kojin deta) was mentioned in Article 22 of the Basic Law on the Formation of an Advanced Information and Telecommunications Network Society within the rubric of ‘security’. This was followed up by the e-Japan strategy of January 2001, which under the section on the Facilitation of E-Commerce, recommended that “Necessary legislative measures should be taken to win the confidence of consumers, including submission of a bill to protect personal data to the ordinary session of the Diet in 2001.”

The Bill was introduced in March 2001, but as a result of concerns about its effects on the freedom of the press, was left to fall by 2002. However the Personal Information Protection Bill was passed in 2003, one of five bills with implications for data protections to be passed in that Diet session.The bill came into force in 2005. I’ll discuss the content and operation of the bill later, but there’s a good summary in English from when the Bill was passed here.

The one particularly interesting thing to note here is that it doesn’t designate or establish any one body to oversee the operation of the law or the enforcement of rights, or deal with complaints as in European countries and Canada, for example, Instead it keeps data protection as an internal matter for designated government ministries (and for companies), with legal action an option if all else fails. The law is generally on the side of data flow and commercial / administrative convenience, which is not surprising given its origins in industry-led e-commerce promotion organisations.

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