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'Deliberately' obscure gov't file names leave Japan's National Archives at a loss

The National Archives of Japan is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on March 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The National Archives of Japan ended up asking 39 ministries and agencies about the content of some 200,000 official documents in fiscal 2016 and 2017 because the documents' titles were vague and it was impossible to judge whether they should be preserved.

Some government officials say the titles of official document files were deliberately obscured in a bid to prevent the general public from making requests to the government to disclose the documents under the freedom-of-information system.

"We were afraid that if the contents of documents could be easily assumed from their file names, it would be easier for members of the public to request disclosure of the documents. We feared that we would be a target of criticism based on the information that was disclosed," one former official said.

The Mainichi Shimbun earlier confirmed that the Defense Ministry added supplementary explanations to roughly 40,000 documents, whose names the ministry admitted were vague. The ministry is currently reviewing file names of its internal documents.

The latest finding demonstrates that the entire government has tended to use vague file names for official documents. However, government ministries and agencies are coming under mounting pressure to change their awareness of the importance of disclosure of information.

The National Archives is tasked with selecting and preserving official documents that are historically valuable. The government ministries and agencies are supposed to determine how long each official document should be retained and whether the document should be discarded or transferred to the National Archives after its retention period.

The Cabinet Office, which has jurisdiction over the Public Records and Archives Management Act, commissions the National Archives to make sure historically valuable documents are not classified as documents that should be discarded.

The National Archives decides whether official documents should be preserved or discarded based mainly on lists compiled by ministries and agencies that include the names of the files.

The file names of official documents are the same as those appearing on a list of official documents the government has released online.

When the National Archives cannot judge whether official documents should be preserved from their file names, it asks the relevant ministries and agencies about their contents.

The National Archives inquired ministries and agencies about official documents in 116,843 cases in fiscal 2016 and in 84,277 cases the following fiscal year. In most of these cases, National Archives officials did not understand the contents of documents because of their vague file names, such as "documents concerning a conference" and "miscellaneous."

Among the total of 201,120 cases subject to inquiries, those made to the Defense Ministry accounted for the largest number, at 108,080, followed by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry at 15,874, the Finance Ministry at 13,238, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry at 11,769, and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry at 10,568.

The national government began to disclose the file names of administrative documents on its website "e-Gov" in April 2001 under an enforcement order of the Public Records and Archives Management Act to facilitate the public's use of the freedom-of-information system.

However, the deliberate use of vague file names for official administrative documents has adversely affected the government's work.

"Because the file names have been made abstract, it takes longer to search for documents. Officials have tied themselves down (through such practices)," an individual linked to the Cabinet Office lamented.

Gakushuin University associate professor Naoki Shimoju, who had worked at the National Archives of Japan until last year as a senior specialist for official documents, pointed out that the vague naming of many official documents runs counter to freedom of information.

"There were numerous files whose contents were incomprehensible. In some cases, ministries and agencies failed to give sufficient answers in response to our inquiries," Shimoju said. "Such a situation will only hinder the improvement of the quality of official document management and put the general public at a disadvantage."

Another expert, Masashi Kotani, who previously headed the Records Management Society of Japan, echoed Shimoju's view and urged government officials to change their awareness of the importance of information disclosure.

"Making file names abstract inhibits people from exercising their right to know, and also negatively affects classification of historically valuable documents and hinders efficient administrative management," Kotani said. "To improve official document management, it is necessary to change ministry and agency officials' awareness in addition to reviewing practices such as assignment of specialized officials."

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