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Editorial: Abe gov't should respect spirit of law to keep important administrative data

The Public Records and Archives Management Act characterizes public documents as intellectual resources to be shared by the people in supporting the basis of sound democracy. Therefore, public documents should be compiled and preserved in an appropriate manner in preparation for future disclosure.

However, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has responded to the matter in such a way as to trample down the spirit of the law.

The government has refused to confirm the existence of documents that mention Prime Minister Abe's "will" in connection with a plan by Kake Educational Institution, a school corporation run by one of Abe's close friends, to set up a veterinary department at a university it runs in a national strategic special economic zone.

The legislation stipulates that public documents are supposed to be compiled by employees of administrative organs in the course of their duties and held for organizational use by such workers. Just as former vice education minister Kihei Maekawa explains, if the documents in question were used when his staff reported to him about the Kake vet school plan, they would be considered as administrative documents. It is wrong to regard only final government approval papers as public documents.

Nevertheless, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry examined only shared folders held by the ministry's division in charge and concluded that they could not confirm the existence of such documents.

There are reportedly cases where bureaucrats save documents they want to withhold from the public in their personal computers as private memo. It was therefore insufficient for the ministry to only examine the shared folders of the concerned division.

If documents that should be regarded as official paperwork are to be treated as private notes, the concerned administrative organ could respond that such documents do not exist in response to a freedom-of-information request, depriving the public of an opportunity to scrutinize the documents.

Questions have been raised over the fairness of the process of establishing national strategic special economic zones -- designated areas with relaxed regulations and taxes intended to spur economic growth -- in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, where Kake Educational Institution plans to open a vet school. If the government believes that there is insufficient basis for the documents in question, the prime minister should proactively instruct the education ministry to thoroughly investigate the case.

The public records management law gives a prime minister broad power, allowing them to have administrative organs conduct investigations and issue recommendations to government bodies to improve their practices.

The government's unclear handling of public documents regarding the sale of a state-owned land lot to another school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, has also surfaced. Specifically, the Finance Ministry discarded the records of its negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen over the deal on the grounds that the ministry was only required to preserve them for up to a year.

However, the documents are related to a discount of the land lot by as much as 800 million yen. How taxpayers' money is being used is an important part of the people's right to know. Even experts in public documents pointed out that the Finance Ministry's discarding of the documents could be illegal.

Furthermore, it is feared that deleted data cannot be restored as the ministry is set to begin to replace its computer system later this month. Prompt measures should be taken to prevent the loss of important data.

The fundamental question in the Moritomo and Kake cases is whether the government took fair and democratic procedures. It is the government's duty toward the public to record the process of making decisions in official documents to be preserved for future generations. It is necessary to ensure that government officials thoroughly respect the philosophy of the law.

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