The Supreme Court ordered the state on Friday to disclose some administrative documents related to the government's so-called secret funds but limited the disclosure to those that do not carry information on how and for whom the funds were used.
It marks the top court's first ruling on information disclosure on secret funds, which are state outlays for intelligence gathering and other activities in the national interest and disbursed under the authority of the chief Cabinet secretary.
How the funds have actually been spent remains little known to the public, although the government has released the sizes of such expenditures upon request.
In the lawsuit, members of a civic group sought the disclosure on the use of a total of 2.71 billion yen ($24.5 million) in secret funds spent under three chief Cabinet secretaries — 1.1 billion yen in 2005 and 2006 under Shinzo Abe, 250 million yen in September 2009 under Takeo Kawamura and 1.36 billion yen in 2013 under Yoshihide Suga.
The information disclosure law allows the state to keep certain information secret as an exceptional measure. The state does not need to reveal information if its disclosure is deemed to cause harm to state operations or damage diplomatic relationships with other countries.
The contention of the lawsuit was whether the use of confidential funds is subject to the exceptional measure.
The Supreme Court ruling is largely in line with those by lower courts, which ordered the disclosure of three types of documents that do not carry the names of individuals for whom the government had used the discretionary funds.
"The government takes the ruling seriously. We intend to deal with it appropriately after thoroughly studying its contents," Suga, the current top government spokesman, said at a press conference following the top court decision.
Originally, the civic group members filed three lawsuits with the Osaka District Court to demand information disclosure regarding the expenditures under the three chief Cabinet secretaries of the government led by the Liberal Democratic Party. Each lawsuit pertains to outlays by one of the three.
The district court ordered the state to disclose the documents that carried only figures and dates and not the names of individuals or how the money had been used, in all of the three lawsuits.
The Osaka High Court upheld the lower court rulings on the secret funds spent at the time of Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe and Kawamura.
However, the high court overturned the lower court ruling regarding the funds spent in 2013 under Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga and allowed the state not to disclose almost all of the documents at the time.
The secret funds, formally known as Cabinet Secretariat compensation expense, are budgeted as an expense that can be used flexibly to carry out national operations, such as for gaining cooperation from someone related to important national policies or paying for intelligence provision.
In the past, there were reports that secret funds were used for political maneuvering to counter opposition parties or for overseas trips by lawmakers.
Japan budgets some 1.4 billion yen as secret funds, including expenses spent at the Cabinet Secretariat's intelligence investigation office, every year.