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Editorial: Auto-deleting official emails at gov't bodies hinders checking process

The government has released a statement saying that central government bodies have been automatically deleting official emails. The disclosure came in response to a written question submitted by an opposition party lawmaker. Since 2009, the Ministry of Finance has auto-deleted emails 60 days after they are sent or received.

The practice of discarding official emails after a short period of time makes it difficult to review decision-making processes by administrative bodies.

Finance Minister Taro Aso suggested during a recent meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee that his ministry would not halt the auto-delete practice, citing the organization's server capacity as a reason for discarding emails. He added that the ministry "saves what is necessary in an appropriate manner."

The Public Records and Archives Management Act and the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs require administrative organizations to properly manage and disclose public documents that their employees create in the course of their duties and retain for organizational use. Digital records including emails are considered public documents.

Under document management guidelines based on the public records management law, written records are required to enable tracing of decision-making processes by administrative bodies and for later verification. As a rule, public documents are saved at least for a year.

The Mainichi Shimbun, however, has recently reported that ministries and agencies do not treat many of their emails as public records. A bureaucrat told the Mainichi that officials unilaterally decide some emails are personal notes and delete them.

It remains doubtful that indispensable emails can be sorted out in a short time and saved as claimed by Finance Minister Aso. In the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned lot to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, the inability to check emails that could shed light on the negotiation process has prevented the examination of the legitimacy of the land sale.

The use of email -- including inquiries from Diet lawmakers and responses to those questions -- has been rising at ministries and agencies. It is expected that the significance of emails handled at central government organizations will grow further in the future. Allowing individual officials to manage their emails could lead to the loss of important documentation.

In the United States, the management of digital data and emails advanced under former President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative. An email management system was introduced, which allowed emails sent and received by senior officials on their official email accounts to be handled automatically.

In Japan, meanwhile, the Public Records and Archives Management Commission made up of experts called attention to the management of digital documents in a review of the public records law five years after it came into effect in 2011.

Public records are "intellectual resources shared by the public." Each ministry and agency is tasked with mapping out rules regarding the management of official documents according to guidelines that have been revised to prevent careless disposal of records. They are looking to put the rules into use in April. In line with this move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to take a serious approach to the formulation of regulations for the retention and disclosure of official emails, and lead efforts in the management of public records.

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