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Editorial: Punishment needed for all tampering of public records

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to trivialize measures to prevent a recurrence of the tampering of public records as a mere review of operations. Such a stance is far from sufficient.

Abe has instructed Cabinet ministers to tighten management of public records, and consider measures to prevent a recurrence of document tampering. The pillars of this move include reforming awareness of legal compliance and transitioning to an electronic approval system that records the history of document updates.

However, there are fears that such strict management of documents will be interpreted as an instruction not to leave "unnecessary" records in the first place. Bureaucrats could shrink back and merely produce documents as formalities, or not create any in the first place.

The Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office has decided not to indict officials including Nobuhisa Sagawa, former head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, over the tampering of documents on the approval of the sale of state land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to school operator Moritomo Gakuen. Prosecutors determined that the presence of alterations had no bearing on the content of the contract with Moritomo Gakuen and on the conclusion regarding the final amount of the sale, and thus did not constitute a crime under the Penal Code of creating false public documents.

However, public documents are managed and saved to reveal to the public the process by which political decisions are made. If the background process is unclear, the public is unable to check whether there has been any political meddling along the way. In the latest case, documentation of that process was deleted. There is a need to work on legal revisions so that that act of making changes which alter the nature of a document is deemed a falsehood and is subject to punishment.

The Public Records and Archives Management Act is written on the premise that administrative authorities and other bodies will leave behind accurate documents, because this supports the core elements of democracy.

Yet there are still loopholes. Both the Public Records and Archives Management Act and the Act on Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs, or the national information disclosure law, say the condition for defining public records is that they are possessed by administrative organizations to be used systematically. In interpreting this to suit themselves, officials have classed inconvenient documents as "personal memos" or have come up with the excuse that the documents have been deleted. The government should consider classifying all documents created in the course of official duties as public records.

Operation of the system is also important. The principal of the law that public documents are "shared intellectual assets of the public" has not taken root among bureaucrats. We would like to see training enhanced in this regard.

At the same time, there is a need to nurture and position experts on document management. It has been pointed out that Japan lags far behind Europe and the United States in this area.

The fact that government ministries and agencies decide on when to preserve and discard documents is another cause of misconduct. Officials should consider a mechanism that leaves this task to an independent third party.

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