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Editorial: Laws on preserving, releasing public records need spirit, not just form

It has been nine years since the Public Records and Archives Management Act defining public documents as "the public's shared intellectual resources" was brought into effect, and 17 years since the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs, or the national information disclosure law, came into operation.

    However, looking at the government administration over the past year, we are far from being able to say that these laws have taken root and are serving their intended purposes.

    The management of public records and the disclosure of information have been described as the "wheels of the car" in public administration. Administrative bodies produce public records so they can explain to the public how policies were decided. The public then accesses this information and evaluates it.

    The national and local governments in Japan, however, have lacked proper awareness when it comes to sharing this information with citizens and residents. Previously there was no system for releasing public information upon requests from citizens. The way to change was in fact led by a local body, with the town of Kaneyama in Yamagata Prefecture establishing an ordinance on information disclosure in 1982. Nineteen years later, in 2001, the national government's information disclosure law was brought into effect.

    However, in 2007, the issue of missing pension records and other problems came to light and it was learned that public documents hadn't been officially recorded or administered, which sparked public criticism. Reflecting on this situation, the government, led by then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, discussed the issue, and an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties led to the creation of the Public Records and Archives Management Act in 2009.

    How have things fared since then? Only recently, it emerged that the Ministry of Finance had doctored official documents, making over 300 alterations. Furthermore, the Defense Ministry's handling of the daily logs of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members dispatched to Iraq has been extremely sloppy, with fallacious reports and information cover-ups.

    Why hasn't bureaucrats' way of thinking been reformed? In the Meiji Period, the beginning of modern Japan, the Emperor was sovereign, and bureaucrats had no obligation to provide explanations to the public. After World War II, while sovereignty was transferred to the people of Japan, the perception of bureaucrats being superior pervaded and the decision on how far administrative bodies should go in preserving documents and how long they should keep them was left up to government ministries and agencies.

    Hajime Sebata, an associate professor at Nagano Prefectural College who is familiar with issues relating to public records, points out, "Accountability to the public has not taken root, and even now at government ministries and agencies, their understanding of documents as 'public assets' has not progressed."

    The problem of the "wheels of the car" not turning has been symbolized by authorities' release of documents with most parts blacked out in response to freedom-of-information requests. Such documents are dubbed "noriben" (seaweed bento) documents due to their resemblance to bento box rice covered in dried seaweed strips. In some cases, it takes a significant amount of time for the information to be disclosed, and in others even when there is a request, authorities can easily say, "There are no documents."

    There have also been instances in which officials needlessly apply a wide interpretation of stipulations on the nondisclosure of documents, and refuse to release certain documents on the grounds that doing so will hinder the frank exchange of opinions and the neutrality of decision-making. Moreover, the explanation that officials are busy with other work and that screening will take time is practically a set expression. And then there is the issue of administrative officials stubbornly insisting that items do not exist as public documents because they are personal memos, for example.

    In other words, administrative officials are interpreting the laws not from the public's perspective, but to suit the government. Doesn't this just reduce legislation to having form but not spirit?

    There was recently an incident that painfully reminded us of the importance of preserving and releasing public documents. In a probe into a favoritism scandal involving a veterinary school operated by Kake Educational Institution, it became clear that then prime ministerial aide Tadao Yanase attended a meeting at the prime minister's office over the vet school plan because the Ehime Prefectural Government and the Ehime Prefecture city of Imabari created documents on the meeting.

    However, the responses of the prefectural and municipal governments differed greatly when it came to releasing the information. The municipal government blacked out the names of participants and other information, but the prefectural government acknowledged that a worker had created documents on the meeting, including the names of the attendants and statements that were made. This went on to show that the final say on releasing documents came down to a decision by the head of the local body.

    In the case of the logs of Self-Defense Forces dispatched to Iraq, some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suggested that this information should be treated as a specially designated state secret, which would mean it would not be subject to immediate release. However, the public has a right to know what is happening in the areas to which SDF members are dispatched. The government should continue to treat the logs as information subject to release so long as it does not hinder security.

    A series of scandals within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has given rise to discussion on reviewing management of public records. Japan's ruling parties compiled an interim report recommending revisions to the way the system is operated, having all official documents preserved in digital format. The opposition parties have also suggested that the doctoring of documents be grounds for punishment, and that an electronic system recording traces when documents are rewritten be made mandatory.

    Problems relating to operation of the system should be rectified, but the effectiveness of the treatment of the symptoms alone has its limits. If Japan is really to achieve the aims of the laws, surely it should turn its attention to full-fledged reform.

    There are suggestions of making such drastic revisions as defining documents shared within an organization, which are subject to both the information disclosure act and the Public Records and Archives Management Act, as "documents created in the course of official business." The government should also consider a system in which the management of documents is left up to third-party organizations.

    In order to press ahead with such reforms, it is indispensable to heighten the public's interest in preserving and releasing public documents.

    By accessing public documents, people can check and evaluate public administration. And an accumulation of such efforts will surely allow people to fulfill their responsibility as sovereign members of society and support the foundations of democracy.

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