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Cabinet Office holding era name change papers longer than legally stipulated

The Central Government Building No. 4 that houses the Cabinet Office is seen in this file photo in the Kasumigaseki district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on April 26, 2017. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Government records on the process of changing the era name from Showa to Heisei in January 1989 will not be transferred to the National Archives of Japan for public viewing until the end of March 2044, exceeding the maximum 30-year retention time set by the law by some 25 years, according to the government department in charge of the matter.

Japan uses the Imperial era name system, which sets one era name for each emperor, along with the Western calendar.

The Public Records and Archives Management Act says that public documents should be transferred to the National Archives one to 30 years after they were "prepared or obtained" by relevant government offices. In keeping the papers longer, the period and the reason must be reported to the prime minister and necessary steps must be taken.

The era name selection records were "newly obtained" in 2013 by the General Affairs Division of the Cabinet Office when they were handed over to the division, explained officials in charge. Now the start date for the 30-year retention period for the department is set at April 1, 2014, they added.

Documents handed over to the archives are made public in principle. Prior to being handed over, government departments in charge decide whether to release them or not in response to freedom of information requests or other circumstances.

The longer retention period of the era name documents emerged in connection with a refused freedom of information request filed with the Cabinet Office by the Mainichi Shimbun.

The Cabinet Office turned down a Mainichi request for documents related to the new era name selection some 30 years ago, explaining that releasing the papers "poses a risk of giving those drafting era names in the future unnecessary presuppositions, and hindering the proper implementation of era name selection." The decision, issued under the name of the director general, also stated that the papers should remain in the government's hands because they "allow for the identification of individuals, and could lead to those who made the drafts proposals coming under scrutiny" for their methods in choosing the new name.

Those documents are believed to include the name of the individual who proposed Heisei as the era name. Unless the Cabinet Office changes its position, the papers will only be made public after their transfer to the National Archives in 2044.

Lawyer Hiroshi Miyake, who was the acting chairman of the Cabinet Office's Public Records and Archives Management Commission, pointed out that the current arrangement is "clearly evasive of the law." He explained that "prepare" means a bureaucrat made a document with their authority, while "obtain" suggests a document was newly acquired from a third party.

"Allowing government agencies to pass along documents among themselves (to change the retention period) and delay the papers' transfer to the archives is against the spirit of the law," he added.

An official in charge of the case at the Cabinet Office's General Affair Division told the Mainichi that the documents in question were "newly obtained when the handling of issues related to the era name was transferred from the office of the Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary," which was the Cabinet Councilors' Office on Internal Affairs in 1989, to the General Affairs Division.

The Records and Archives Management Division of the Cabinet Office replied in a written answer to an inquiry that the division was "not aware" of measures taken by the General Affairs Division, but "renewing the retention period when handling departments change is not envisioned in principle."

Yukiko Miki, head of the nonprofit organization Access-Info Clearinghouse Japan, said transferring documents from one department to another with organizational change does not mean "obtaining" them under government guidelines for managing public documents. "Not keeping the original retention period after a handover lengthens the period unnecessarily," he said.

The Public Records and Archives Management Act, which was implemented in April 2011, requires "historical public records" be transferred to the National Archives. Government offices can attach opinions restricting their public viewing even after transfer, but it is up to the head of the National Archives to determine whether to open them or not. Under this rule, documents created in January 1989 would be passed on to the archives in 2019.

Records detailing the era naming process from Meiji (1968-1912) to Taisho (1912-1926) and Taisho to Showa (1926-1989) are stored at the archives, and were made public in phases from the 1991 fiscal year through fiscal 2001.

(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department)

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