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Concerns raised as ministry officials advised not to record meetings

An internal document compiled by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry is seen on Aug. 29, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Revelations that Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry officials were told not to record the contents of meetings with politicians, on top of the discovery of an internal document advising officials not to produce minutes of meetings, have suggested the entire ministry has a desire to cover up what is unfavorable to them.

Moves to apparently not keep official documents are not limited to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, and one government insider expressed concerns that such abnormal circumstances may be spreading throughout the national government.

People linked to the economy ministry said division director-level officials who attended an in-house meeting in late March were told by their boss not to record what was talked about in meetings with officials at deputy chief Cabinet secretary-level or above.

"I took it to mean we shouldn't take notes when we go to the prime minister's office," one of the attendees told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The instruction came almost at the same time when the internal document in question was created and distributed to deputy division director-level officials in another meeting following revisions to the government guidelines for managing administrative documents.

The internal document, which states that "there is no need to record who said what," was compiled by the economy ministry's Information Systems and Welfare Division.

"The document meant that what was discussed does not necessarily need to be fully recorded in minutes. If some officials took it to mean 'there are rules that such minutes shouldn't be compiled,' then that would mean the instruction wasn't properly understood," an official of the division said.

An official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, who received a copy of the document, is furious at this explanation and said, "Such an explanation is unreasonable." The bureaucrat claimed that he was clearly instructed not to create minutes.

"Bureaucrats have accurately recorded what politicians said as a customary practice. Instructions not to compile minutes means we must stop this practice. I felt it was strong pressure," the official said. "The Information Systems and Welfare Division bothered to create such a document stating, 'there is no need to record who said what,' but didn't feel it was problematic even when they are interviewed over the matter. The division's awareness is strange. It's proof that the division doesn't pay attention to the general public's views."

The document advising officials not to produce minutes of meetings was supposed to have been discarded immediately after the meeting. The ministry's Information Systems and Welfare Division told the Mainichi Shimbun on Aug. 29 that it is still confirming whether the document is still preserved.

Such trends are not limited to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. A source close to the Environment Ministry said there are a growing number of internal documents at the ministry titled, "Private memorandum."

Official documents subject to disclosure under the freedom-of-information system are defined as those used by the ministry as an entity. Therefore, documents classified as private documents are not subject to disclosure.

However, even documents distributed at official meetings at the Environment Ministry are treated as private documents in some cases, according to the source.

"I recently saw a document on a project involving a politician, whose cover said, 'Private memorandum.' I suspect that such abnormal circumstances are spreading throughout Kasumigaseki (an administrative district in the capital)," the source said.

Toyo University professor Kazuhiro Hayakawa of administrative law, who is well versed in management of administrative documents, said these practices are inappropriate.

"The Public Records and Archives Management Act requires that administrative procedures and projects can be reviewed later. If awareness that detailed records are unnecessary spreads and minutes aren't compiled, the amount of information available would decrease," Hayakawa said.

"Such practices run counter to the spirit of the law and efforts to manage public documents in an appropriate manner. Moreover, if documents detailing new ways of managing administrative documents are discarded immediately, it makes it impossible to confirm what the new management method is based on. It's inappropriate," he said.

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

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