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Most emails handled by ministers, state ministers, parliamentary vice-ministers discarded

In response to a Mainichi Shimbun freedom-of-information request for all work emails sent and received by the ministers, state ministers and parliamentary vice-ministers of all government ministries and agencies, just one email was released, revealing that emails handled by those in these three positions are rarely preserved as public records.

In October of last year, the Mainichi Shimbun requested the release of all emails sent and received by the approximately 130 people who had served as ministers, state ministers and parliamentary vice-ministers since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second reshuffled 3rd Cabinet was inaugurated in August 2016. As an exception, the Mainichi asked for the release of all emails handled by the prime minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga since December 2012, when the 2nd Abe Cabinet was launched.

The result was the release of just one email: a mass email sent in May last year by Gaku Hashimoto, then state minister of health, labor and welfare, to all departments in the ministry explaining the government's "work style reform" policy.

During a House of Councillors Audit Committee meeting on April 3 last year, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Hiroshige Seko, in presenting an example of how he uses technology to work while he's away from his office, said, "At night, I receive an email from my secretary saying that a draft for my testimony in the Diet the following day has been written up, at which point I access the METI server and go over the notes."

In response to the Mainichi's freedom-of-information request, METI said it was not in possession of emails sent and received by minister Seko, the state minister, or the parliamentary vice-minister. As for the email that Seko referred to in his April 2017 Diet testimony, a representative for the secretarial division of the minister's secretariat told the Mainichi, "The minister and his secretaries send each other simple messages via email, but such day-to-day interactions are basically deleted right away, so they no longer existed when we received the freedom-of-information request." This indicates that the ministry recognized such emails as public documents, but was unable to supply them to the Mainichi because they had been discarded.

On Nov. 30 last year, in an attempt to show that bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were working late into the night to prepare for Diet testimonies, Foreign Minister Taro Kono tweeted, "An email from the minister's office at the ministry at 22:43. 'The questions have yet to come in, but please be ready to leave the Diet members' residential quarters at 0650 tomorrow morning. In all, it should be about 30 minutes.' The ministry is still waiting to receive advance-notice questions for tomorrow's committee session." When the Mainichi specified this email and sought its release once again, the foreign ministry responded that its existence could not be confirmed.

The Public Records and Archives Management Act and the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs define public records as documents "that, having been prepared or obtained by an employee of an administrative organization in the course of his or her duties, is held by the administrative organ concerned for organizational use by its employees," and includes electronic information. However, the preservation period of public records deemed as having little significance at the discretion of government ministries and agencies is set at under one year, and if they have been discarded at the time of a freedom-of-information request, they are not subject to release.

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