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Osaka Gov. Yoshimura used private email in public duties relating to achievement tests

A copy of a document dated March 8, 2019 shows a decision that emails exchanged between then Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and a special adviser to the city will not be disclosed on the grounds that the emails "do not exist." (Mainichi, image partially modified)

OSAKA -- Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura used a private email account when exchanging messages with a special adviser during his term as mayor of the city of Osaka, allowing for part of those exchanges to slip through public document archives, it has been learned.

Yoshimura used a private email address between the summer of 2018 and this spring to contact a special adviser to the Osaka Municipal Government over the creation of a system to reflect the results of academic achievement tests in teacher evaluations. Because of his use of private email, the exchanges were not maintained as public documents. The lack of records surfaced following a freedom-of-information request by a citizens group.

Critics have condemned the governor's action as running counter to an ordinance requiring proper management of public documents, saying it could make way for arbitrary management of such documents. They are calling for a review of rules pertaining to officials' use of emails.

In August last year, Yoshimura, as mayor, proposed the need to reflect the results of the national assessment of academic ability in teacher evaluations and their allowances, as the city of Osaka languished in bottom place in test results among the 20 ordinance-designated cities across the nation. Yoshimura then initiated discussions over the matter with Tohoku University professor Fujio Omori, special adviser to the city and former head of the municipal board of education both via email and at face-to-face meetings.

At a meeting of the local general education council in January this year, it was decided that the results of Osaka Prefecture and city's own achievement test results would be used in the evaluation of school principals, and trials for the scheme were set to begin this fiscal year. However, the plan was deferred after Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who assumed the post in April, announced a review of the program.

Masahiro Iga, secretary-general of a citizens group highlighting the excessive pressure tests could put on students, filed a freedom-of-information request in February for the disclosure of email exchanges between Yoshimura and Omori in order to clarify the decision-making processes leading up to the plan.

However, the Osaka Municipal Government responded with a non-disclosure decision, claiming that the emails did not exist. The city similarly said email exchanges between Yoshimura and the superintendent of education and the secretariat to the municipal board of education did not exist.

The citizens group nevertheless managed to obtain the content of emails sent from Omori to the education board's secretariat through a freedom-of-information request. In one email dated Aug. 16, 2018, Omori wrote, "After I emailed the mayor, I received replies from him on three occasions." Another email dated Jan. 4, 2019 stated, "As a result of repeated discussions with the mayor at the end of last year, I received instructions that the matter should be carried forward based on a (draft) policy in the attached file."

According to the city, it provides the mayor with an email address for public use when he or she takes office, along with an explanation that the mayor should save emails that could be subject to public disclosure in dedicated folders. A municipal ordinance for public document management defines official documents as ones that are "possessed by municipal and other bodies for organizational use," including "documents created or obtained in the course of duty." Furthermore, the ordinance requires public documents to be produced when they are directly linked to decision-making processes.

The city claims that it learned about Yoshimura's use of private email only through Omori's emails, and said, "Emails exchanged via private email addresses could also constitute public documents depending on their content." However, the city added, "Emails that should be kept as public documents would have been forwarded." The city has accordingly not retrieved Yoshimura's emails in question, nor has it disclosed the entire content of those emails.

In the past, about 1,360 emails sent by former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto from his time in office were released to the public. However, only six such emails sent by Yoshimura have been released. None of the emails sent by current Mayor Matsui had been disclosed as of Oct. 4. Matsui rarely uses his email address for public use.

When queried by the Mainichi Shimbun over the matter, Yoshimura replied in writing, "There are times when I exchange messages with special advisers via my private email address, but they are not the kind of documents to be shared across the entire organization nor are they related to administrative decision-making processes. Those messages are simply at the stage of the personal exchange of opinions." His response suggests he does not see his emails sent to Omori via his private address as constituting public documents.

(Japanese original by Yukiko Hayashi, Osaka City News Department)

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