National / Politics

Given latest scandals, Japanese government looks to revise document-shredding rules

JIJI

Hit by influence scandals leading all the way to the prime minister, the government will later this month launch a debate on revising how administrative documents should be managed.

The debate will focus on how much the government can limit the arbitrary discarding of administrative documents that ought to be kept — a point recently raised in the Diet amid controversies revolving around such documents.

To tackle arbitrary document destruction, the government must consider ways to reduce the number of documents kept for less than a year, which government agencies can dispose of at their own discretion.

According to guidelines on document management drawn up in 2011, government agencies sort documents into five categories for storage, ranging from one to 30 years, according to importance. Documents left out of these categories are kept for less than a year.

Government agencies don’t have to keep records on document creation and destruction. And each has its own set of classification rules under the guidelines.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet Office’s commission on the management of public documents will hold a meeting to set the course of revisions.

The commission, led by Katsuya Uga of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, will study specific requirements for documents to be kept for less than a year, hoping to tweak the guidelines by the end of this year, at the earliest, informed sources said.

The revision effort is being driven by several scandals that rocked the Diet before the ordinary session closed in June.

One of them was the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, part of which involved the heavily discounted sale of government land to the Osaka-based nationalist school operator. The Finance Ministry told the Diet that its records on the negotiations with the owner, who had once been supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife but now faces fraud charges, had been destroyed.

In a scandal that led to the resignation of former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada last month, the Defense Ministry said it discarded the daily activity logs from Ground Self-Defense Force engineering unit that was participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. It was later revealed, however, that the reports still exist.

The reports describe armed conflicts in the young, conflict-torn African nation that break Japan’s conditions for allowing SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions abroad, including a cease-fire.

Both cases involved documents that agencies can destroy within a year.

The Defense Ministry came close to admitting that its handling of government documents was problematic by voluntarily changing its rules to ensure daily logs would be stored for 10 years, after its Inspector General’s Office of Legal Compliance opened a special investigation into the cover-up.

Another item in the Cabinet Office commission’s discussions will be how to handle notes made by government officials.

As for the favoritism allegations dogging Abe over the education ministry’s approval of his friend’s plan to open a new veterinary medicine department at a university on Shikoku, a series of related notes said to have been drafted by ministry officials as records of communications that implicated top Cabinet officials in the affair was leaked to Diet lawmakers and the media.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who at first denied the leaked documents even existed, has since stated that a clear line should be drawn between administrative documents and notes.

The line is not clear now. Under the public records and archives management law, administrative documents are defined merely as “documents that the staff of administrative agencies create as part of their duties and are used as an organization.”

One idea the government is considering is setting up a post at each government agency to decide which documents should be kept, according to the sources.

An education ministry official sounded skeptical about the idea, though. “If you don’t have to disclose personal notes, all documents would be treated as personal notes,” the official said.

The remark suggests that revising the guidelines might jeopardize the spirit of information disclosure, depending on how it is executed.