The government is continually making light of the principles of Japan's system for administering public records. In the most recent example, documents submitted to the Diet in relation to a controversial cherry blossom-viewing party held annually by the prime minister were partially whited out, hiding information from the Diet. The records system needs a complete overhaul.
In late 2017, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revised guidelines on the administration of public documents. The changes were sparked by the favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, in which the discarding of and alteration of documents came to light in quick succession.
The revisions restricted cases in which public documents could be retained for less than a year. Permission to keep records for less than a year was supposed to be given as an exception, and to be restricted to documents where this was warranted.
The Cabinet Office, however, recently altered the preservation period for lists of people invited to the taxpayer-funded cherry-blossom viewing parties so they could be discarded in under a year, on the grounds that the documents warranted an exception. No one can be blamed for thinking that the administration's move to permit exceptions was merely a loophole created in advance by the government allowing it to dispose of inconvenient documents.
The Public Records and Archives Management Act describes public records as an "intellectual resource to be shared by the people in supporting the basis of sound democracy." But under the current administration, such principles have been trampled upon.
First, the government should work to close the gaps in the system. It has to review the rules that allow documents to be retained for under a year, and remove any leeway for interpreting them arbitrarily.
The guidelines also require the government to create documents on discussions that have a bearing on the formation of government policy. But not even meetings between the prime minister and Cabinet ministers have been recorded. There is a need to clearly state what kinds of things should be recorded.
A stronger system of checks is also needed. The Public Records and Archives Management Commission, the National Archives of Japan and the nation's public records oversight office lack independence, or are weak when it comes to exercising their authority. Because of this they have not been able to properly carry out their roles.
Experts are seeking the establishment of a third-party authority to oversee the preservation and disposal of public records at government ministries and agencies. This body must be independent from the Cabinet, and it is essential that it has strong authority.
The government should also consider establishing punishments within the Public Records and Archives Management Act. At present, even when documents are maliciously altered, the hurdles for applying Penal Code stipulations on falsifying official documents are high.
Appropriate management of public records is a prerequisite for the government to fulfill its responsibility of providing an appropriate explanation to the public. But in Japan, an awareness of this responsibility is lacking. It is the role of politics to connect systematic reform to changes in thinking, and create a culture of preserving public documents.
Both the ruling and opposition parties must commence debate to return to the principles of the law.