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Cabinet Office violated Japan's public record guidelines for 'discarded' sakura party data

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, center, pose for photos with guests at the 2019 cherry blossom-viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- The Cabinet Office kept no register records on its apparent disposal of lists of people invited to a taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing party over the five years through fiscal 2017 -- violating government guidelines on the administration of public documents.

There are similarly no disposal records for documents containing recommendation requests to government ministries and agencies for the parties hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the same period.

Rules on the administration of public documents state that when certain documents are discarded, information including the filename of the administrative document and the disposal date must be recorded in a register. The Cabinet Office has admitted that it violated these guidelines. Without the data, it is not possible to verify whether the lists were actually discarded or not.

Investigations into the annual cherry blossom-viewing function have given rise to suspicions that the chairman of a rental firm suspected of having operated a pyramid marketing scheme was invited to the 2015 function under a slot endorsed by the prime minister. There are also suspicions that an "antisocial" figure was present at this year's sakura party in April.

The Cabinet Office shredded the list of people invited to the fiscal 2019 party immediately after an opposition lawmaker asked for the information. The latest finding now indicates the Cabinet Office improperly handled records on previous parties.

Guidelines on the administration of public documents were formulated in April 2011. The fiscal 2011 cherry blossom-viewing party was not held as Japan was still reeling from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, while the fiscal 2012 party was also cancelled because Japan was on alert over the launch of North Korean missiles. But the function was held every year from 2013 onwards following the inauguration of the second Abe administration.

According to the Cabinet Office, the preservation period of the lists of people invited to the annual party up until fiscal 2017 was set at one year. Under the Public Records and Archives Management Act, the titles of documents whose preservation period is one year or more must be recorded in an "Administrative Document File Management Register" along with the name of who produced them and how long they are to be stored for. After a document's retention period has expired, it is either transferred to the National Archives of Japan, or measures to discard it are taken and the person managing it (usually a division director) records the filename and date in a register of transferred files and a register of discarded files.

The Personnel Division of the Cabinet Office has explained that previous lists of people invited to the parties have been discarded. But when the Mainichi Shimbun checked with the Cabinet Office about the files for the fiscal 2013-2017 parties, there were no entries in the register of discarded files.

An official in the Personnel Division admitted that the absence of the information "is not in line with the guidelines." The official added, "It's unclear why there are no records. It's also unclear whether the lists of invitees to the fiscal 2013-2017 parties were registered in the Administrative Document File Management Register when they were created, but they're not listed in the management register now. We've judged that they've already been discarded."

After standards on document retention periods of less than one year were clarified in December 2017, the Cabinet Office in April 2018 switched the retention period of lists of people invited to the cherry blossom-viewing parties to "less than one year." As a result of this change, there is no need to include the lists from fiscal 2018 onwards in the file management or disposal registers.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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