There is an episode in Japan's modern history that shows just how much paperwork the country's government offices collect: the bonfires of official documents at the end of World War II. On the day before Emperor Hirohito's Aug. 15, 1945 surrender speech was broadcast, the Cabinet issued a decision ordering the Home Ministry to burn its papers. The head of the ministry's document management section wrote this of the experience:
"Because no one knew what documents would cause trouble for whom later on, we were told to burn everything without picking or choosing. We spent three days and three nights burning documents in the ministry's back garden, the flames scorching the night sky."
The mass erasure of official records by fire even covered documents held by retired bureaucrats.
This incident begs the question regarding bureaucrats' document management at today's finance and education ministries -- was there some secret order issued, or were the ministry officials conforming to what they guessed the higher-ups wanted done? No records related to recent scandals involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- first, the cheap sale of state-owned land to a nationalist private school operator in Osaka Prefecture, and second, the revelations of pressure to hastily approve an application for a new veterinary school run by a firm headed by a close Abe friend -- have emerged though the public is keen to know the truth.
Alleged government documents regarding the prime minister's "will" in the vet school approval process have proven especially thorny, with a former top education ministry bureaucrat declaring them genuine while the ministry itself continues to insist it cannot confirm if they even exist. The former bureaucrat has also revealed that an Abe aide even put direct pressure on him over the vet school file, but again, no written proof remains that the meeting took place.
Prime Minister Abe has insisted that the school approval process was all above board, that no pressure was applied. However, today's bureaucratic apparatus should guarantee that we have documentary proof to check that policy-making and administration have been fair. If political power was or is being used to prevent the truth from coming out, one only need look to South Korea or the United States to see how harsh the consequences could be.
If there are truly no records of government decisions that the Japanese people are paying such close attention to, then the details of those decisions must be clarified in the Diet. To say that undocumented events never actually happened is the logic of those bonfires in the Home Ministry garden. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)