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Screening system to ensure local bodies don't discard necessary docs taking root

The National Archives of Japan is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on March 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

Some local governments in Japan have set up third-party bodies to determine whether public documents should be retained beyond their initial preservation period, saving some important records from destruction. But there remain some issues with the checking system, including that prefectural governments and municipalities can limit which documents are subject to screening. Meanwhile, inadequacies with the central government's checking system have come into focus.

At Sagamihara City Hall in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo on Feb. 15, 2016, members of a subcommittee handling public documents, operating under the city's information disclosure and personal information protection review board, had a meeting. The five members, including a university professor and others chosen through public solicitation had with them catalogs of public documents about 4 centimeters thick that had been distributed to them in advance. These listed which sections of the city had control of the public documents and how long the documents were to be preserved.

One of the members focused on a listing titled "Asbestos countermeasures headquarters," referring to a body established in fiscal 2005. "At the time there was quite a problem with the issue, wasn't there?" the member said. In June that year, many residents living around Kubota Corp.'s former Kanzaki factory in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, were found to have contracted mesothelioma, a type of cancer in the chest caused by asbestos. The discovery created ripples around the nation.

Based on the point raised by the panel member, a city official in the panel's secretariat checked with the city's environment protection division, which was in charge of handling the documents, and found that the records included a survey of 395 facilities that had been conducted after asbestos contamination emerged as a social problem.

The onset of mesothelioma can occur decades after exposure to asbestos. Information on where asbestos was found was connected with the health of residents and therefore needed to be preserved for a long time. The subcommittee decided that the records should be retained and the municipal government accordingly decided to preserve them permanently.

Yoshikazu Shibuya, who heads the city's information disclosure division commented, "This underscored the importance of third-party checks. If the documents remain, then it will be possible to quickly respond if something similar happens in the future."

In Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan, which has also established a third-party panel, there are two stages prior to screening by the third-party panel. First, a listing of public documents that are due to be discarded is published on the prefecture's website, and prefectural residents are asked whether they want them preserved. Next, Munehiro Miwa, a professor at Kyushu University who specializes in surveys of public documents, is asked to consider the items, providing an opinion on whether each document should be preserved or discarded.

Based on the opinions of the public and Miwa, a third-party panel then deliberates what action to take. Miwa says the merit of this system is that a diversity of viewpoints is incorporated in determining the value of the documents.

However, even at such local bodies, documents are not always entrusted to third-party panels. The documents subject to screening by a panel are limited to those for which officials have set a retention period in advance, such as "at least one year" or "at least three years." Professor Kazuhiro Hayakawa of Toyo University, a specialist on administrative laws, comments, "There are limits to the system with the existence of documents that can be discarded at the discretion of the sections that make them. There needs to be some sort of effort to check the documents that third-party bodies cannot check."

-- Loose checks on central gov't handling of documents

Central government documents are another matter altogether. When it comes to the disposal of public documents whose retention period is up, there is no such third-party panel of experts within the central government to decide whether to keep or discard the documents. The National Archives of Japan provides advice to government ministries and agencies under the National Archives Act, but it is up to respective ministries and agencies whether or not they follow this advice.

When ministries and agencies create public document files, they are either discarded once their retention period is up, or transferred to the National Archives for a decision on whether or not each item should be preserved. The National Archives lists its decisions on catalogs submitted to the Cabinet Office, which governs the National Archives Act. In line with a request from the Cabinet Office, the National Archives provides advice on whether decisions to discard documents are appropriate based on the file names and other information.

This advice is relayed to relevant government ministries and agencies through the Cabinet Office, but the advice is not binding, and the final decision is left up to those ministries and agencies. According to the National Archives, it is unclear just how many documents earmarked for disposal are later set to be retained for good based on its advice. One official commented, "The advice of the National Archives has its limits."

The responses and advice of third-party panels set up by the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and three other local governments similarly have no legally binding power. But it is apparent that the authority of such bodies has been strengthened through the stipulations of ordinances and rules based on those stipulations, and their actual implementation.

An ordinance of the Sagamihara Municipal Government south of Tokyo, relating to the administration of public documents, states, "When public documents whose retention period is up are due to be discarded, the opinions of a screening panel must be heard in advance." Of 441 documents that a third-party panel decided should be preserved for good, all were set to be kept permanently. Similarly in Sapporo, the capital of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, all 28 documents that a third-panel requested to be kept permanently were accordingly set for permanent retention.

These cases indicate the external checking function for public documents established by some bodies at the local level is working. At the same time, one could say they make the inadequacies of the central government's administration of public documents stand out.

(Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, City News Department)

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