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Japan trade ministry told employees to obscure meeting records

This photo shows a copy of an internal document produced by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry instructing its officials not to leave detailed records of who said what at meetings. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) made an internal document advising its officials not to leave detailed records of meetings with people inside and outside of the ministry including politicians, according to ministry officials.

The document, a copy of which has been obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, tells ministry officials not to write down who said what when recording the discussions they had in such meetings. The instructions were applied at a number of meetings, and a ministry official who attended one such gathering told the Mainichi Shimbun that he was specifically instructed not to leave a transcript identifying the speakers and their respective remarks.

The internal document and practice at the ministry appear to infringe upon government guidelines on the management of administrative documents stating that bureaucrats are to leave records of meetings. The guidelines were revised in response to the tampering of public documents in connection with favoritism scandals involving educational institutions linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The document in question, titled "On management of public documents," is six pages long and dated March 27. It was distributed to some 20 principal deputy directors of METI and related officials who participated in a meeting of a policy planning committee the same day. It was drafted by METI's information systems and welfare division in charge of public document management, in response to revision of the guidelines, and describes future policy regarding how to handle public records.

The revised guidelines say records should be made about meetings that will affect policy planning, administrative work or the implementation policy of programs. The METI document obtained by the Mainichi quotes this portion of the guidelines, and adds its explanation about the records. "It is sufficient (for the records) to state what was discussed with whom and when in such meetings, and there is no need to record who said what, like the minutes of a meeting," it said.

The revised guidelines also require government officials to store for at least one year documents necessary to review decision-making processes at a later date. The METI document, however, was set to be discarded the same day as the March 27 meeting.

An official from the ministry's information systems and welfare division told the Mainichi Shimbun that he has a vague recollection of distributing the document. The official insisted that the instructions contained in the document do not run counter to the revised guidelines on public record management. "It meant that the minutes were to be left when necessary, but that this did not always need to be done when it was unnecessary," said the official. The destruction date was set on the day of the meeting because the document was used only at the meeting on that day, he said.

Ministry officials, however, say the document was used at another meeting. An official who took part in the session said, "It was handed out (at the outset) and we were told not to write down what was going to be said. Then we were told: 'Avoid creating minutes of meetings, so that who said what cannot be determined.'" The official further revealed that the document was distributed to all members of a METI division, and emphasized, "The document was not just for discussions, but an internal circular to notify workers of the strengthening of document management. It's an important document and should not be discarded."

An official of the public document management division at the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for government records as a whole, said that there is no problem if the METI document meant that minutes should be made on an as-needed basis. The official said it would be "a problem" if no records were left at all. Regarding the designation of the METI document for immediate destruction, the Cabinet Office official said it was a case-by-case decision.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Kobayashi and Taiji Mukohata, Special Reports Group)

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