Public access to government records

As almost five years have passed since the law on management and storage of official documents went into effect, a panel of experts at the Cabinet Office is now reviewing it and will make recommendations this spring. Article 1 of the law says that official documents of administrative organizations are the people’s intellectual property that underpins the foundation of a healthy democracy. The panel should review the law from the standpoint of reinforcing the principle of sovereignty resting with the people by improving public access to official documents.

The law, enacted in 2009, was the legacy of former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who thought that the sloppy handling of official documents must stop and that politics must be brought closer to the people. Incidents that prompted the enactment of the law included the health ministry’s failure to notice the existence of internal documents identifying people who could have been infected with the hepatitis C virus and the sloppy handling of some 50 million pieces of pension-related records by workers at the now-defunct Social Insurance Agency. But the transfer of official documents to the National Archives of Japan has not been smooth and public access to official documents with historical significance has not increased since the law went into force.

The state secrets law, enacted in December 2013 and put into force a year later, does not rule out the possibility of the government disposing of documents that have been declassified after being designated as secrets for more than 30 years. It has also surfaced that the Cabinet Legislation Bureau did not keep official records of internal discussions leading up to the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution to lift a self-imposed ban on Japan engaging in collective self-defense. Clearly there are many points the panel should discuss to improve the law and its implementation.

While Article 1 of the law stresses the importance of public disclosure of official documents in promoting democracy, it is more focused on what administrative organizations have to do — managing, storing and offering the documents for the public to examine — to fulfill their duty of accountability to current and future generations. The article fails to mention that the law is designed to guarantee the people’s right to know. The panel should push the government to make it clear in the law that the people have the right to access official documents and that administrative organizations have a duty to respect and uphold this right.

Clearly, the National Archives of Japan should play a central role in the storage and disclosure of public documents. Therefore the panel should propose an increase in its budget and personnel. A proper system should be created and enough resources allocated to train a sufficient number of specialists to operate the archives.

Despite the important role of the National Archives, it has been downgraded from a government body to an independent administrative agency, and thus lacks the power to issue necessary instructions to administrative organizations. The panel should push for upgrading the status of the archives to give it the authority to oversee the management of official documents by administrative bodies. Each administrative organization should also have workers trained to prevent the destruction of documents that are indispensable to the ability of the public to scrutinize the organizations’ decisions and actions. In addition, because administrative organizations produce large volumes of official documents whose retention periods eventually expire, it will also be necessary to establish intermediate archives where such documents can be temporarily stored before they are transferred to the National Archives. This would help prevent bureaucrats from retaining documents that they want to shield from public scrutiny.

Under the state secrets law, if government bodies want to keep documents classified for more than 30 years, they have to get a Cabinet approval and if they cannot get the approval, they must transfer the declassified documents to the National Archives. But the law does not say anything about what to do with documents that have been classified for more than 30 years with a Cabinet approval but have been declassified at some later point. This loophole must be closed.

Most deplorably, the episode at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau shows that government officials sometimes ignore their duty of maintaining records in document form for future review by citizens. The panel should devise a mechanism to ensure that officials keep not only records of final government decisions but also retain the memos that are written in the process leading to final decisions and as well as the reference materials that were used.

Many members of the public are not fully aware of the significance of the role played by the National Archives and the importance of public access to official government documents. The panel should prompt the government to do more to inform the public on this point and to improve public access to archived documents. This is an important way to involve the public in the process of building a national legacy of records that hold historical significance.