Official documents are the common property of the Japanese people. The government of the day does not have the right to decide arbitrarily what to preserve.
We speak, in this case, of the trail of education ministry documents that have led to suspicions of favoritism for school operator Kake Educational Institution headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe applying to open a veterinary school. One of those documents indicates that Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda directly pressured the ministry to approve the application quickly. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has suggested that this document is not an official document at all, but merely a personal memo.
The government, it would appear, is attempting to narrow down the definition of "official document" for its own convenience.
If the ministry document is not labeled an official paper, there is a risk it could be exempted from public disclosure. Suga's statements sound designed for one purpose: to pressure government offices not to leave any troublesome documents lying around.
Under the Public Records and Archives Management Act, government ministries and agencies must preserve all documents that are created or obtained by their employees and held for organizational use. This requirement is designed to make sure that the processes behind all government decisions can be examined after the fact.
If all such documents must be made public after a set period, it becomes difficult for officials to undertake illicit actions in secret. In other words, proper official document management is needed to guarantee fair and impartial governance.
The document in the Kake affair was in a shared computer folder at the education ministry. No matter the intentions of the person who created it, the document is definitely an official paper as defined under the public records law. Even if the document's content is proven inaccurate, we must remember that confirming the veracity of that content and the duty of preserving and releasing it are separate issues.
The Kake affair has revealed how little the essential meaning of the public records law has permeated the ranks of the administration. Surely, Prime Minister Abe has a duty to thoroughly implement these rules, so necessary as they are to the functioning of our democracy.
Even setting aside Suga's specific comment on the Kake document, we must call for the elimination of public records law loopholes. Evasions like calling a document a "personal memo" simply cannot be allowed.
On a related note, records related to the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to nationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen were destroyed before ever making it into the public sphere, as they were marked for preservation for up to only one year.
Experts have pointed out that treating documents this way -- keeping them for such a short span -- introduces obscurity into the system, and called for the conditions for document destruction to be overhauled.
In the United States, even the secret tapes on the Watergate scandal that brought down the Richard Nixon presidency were released to the public. This was based on hard and fast rules for preserving and, after a set time, releasing information, even if it is extremely inconvenient to the authorities.
The Act on Access to Information and the public records law act as an inseparable pair to ensure what we call "the public's right to know." The Abe administration cannot be allowed to mistake the true meaning of public document management.