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Editorial: Gov't move on special zone documents would leave information hidden

There are moves going on within the Japanese government regarding the administration of official documents that cannot be overlooked.

    Officials are considering creating new rules regarding documents on certification procedures for national strategic special zones on the grounds of "increasing transparency." But looking at the details of these planned rules, they actually appear to run counter to the principle of transparency, and could even be interpreted as an attempt by the government to justify the cover-up of information.

    The move comes on the heels of plans by Okayama-based school operator Kake Educational Institution to open a new veterinary school in a national strategic special zone in Ehime Prefecture. Suspicions have emerged that procedures were influenced by the fact that the institution is headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    Documents discovered at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology indicate that the Cabinet Office pressured the ministry over the institution's application, mentioning "the prime minister's will." Yet the question over whether there was unfair pressure has been left unanswered, with one side saying pressure was applied and the other side saying it wasn't in an endless dispute.

    If the government were aiming to prevent a repeat of such a problem, it should make it a rule to produce records of coordination processes between government ministries and agencies in cases where there are conflicts of interest. The significance of preserving and releasing administrative documents is not merely connected with the outcome of political decisions, but with records of the process by which those decisions were made. This enables people to verify whether there were any irregularities in the exercising of authority. And that is a foundation of democracy.

    The plan being considered by the government defies belief. In exchanges between ministries and agencies prior to negotiations at the bureaucratic level, the government seeks to produce records of proceedings only for the part that both sides agree to record.

    In the case of the Kake scandal, that would mean that even if there actually were a statement saying "it is the prime minister's will," if the Cabinet Office did not agree to have this recorded, then records of proceedings would not be created. Internal documents at the education ministry would also be deemed unnecessary and this would shut everything except for the final decision inside a black box.

    The government's plan says, "Issues that are not agreed upon should be made so as not to influence policy." Does this mean the government will regard exchanges not included in the records of proceedings on agreements as not having had any influence on policy? The government simply appears to have taken precautions to prevent any pressure it imposes on other administrative organizations from turning into a problem.

    The government plan also proposes "clarification of the rules on the public release of the minutes of meetings." In the scandal involving the Kake group, the fact that people associated with the institution attended hearings was not included in the minutes. There are thus fears that officials could make it a rule not to leave any information inconvenient for the government in the records of proceedings.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has suggested revising the way official documents are handled. One could be led to suspect that the latest government plan will not be restricted to procedures on national strategic special zones, but extend to all administrative documents.

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