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New guidelines fail to close all loopholes for covering up official documents

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Staff Writer

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken action to close legal loopholes that have led to major government scandals over alleged document cover-ups.

Last week the Cabinet Office unveiled draft guidelines for saving government documents and solicited public comment. Abe’s government plans to finalize the new guidelines by the end of the year.

They were issued in response to the alleged losses and cover-ups of key government papers, incidents that rocked the Abe administration this year and resulted in a considerable fall in the support rate for his Cabinet.

The documents included daily logs of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s operations in South Sudan, transaction records of a government land sale to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen and government papers on alleged government favoritism for school operator Kake Gakuen.

Two experts interviewed by The Japan Times called the new guidelines “one step forward” toward greater transparency because they will offer detailed criteria on what kind of documents can be discarded by ministry officials within a year after they are filed.

But at the same time, the experts maintained there are still loopholes requiring a third party to monitor how ministry officials actually manage sensitive documents.

“Compared with the status quo, the new guidelines are one step forward,” said Masahiro Usaki, a professor emeritus of constitutional studies at Dokkyo University who is familiar with government information disclosure issues.

“The guidelines still need improvement,” he said.

Under the 2009 Public Records and Archives Management Act, government officials are obliged to preserve any “administrative documents” between one and 30 years, depending on their degree of importance.

However, ministry officials are authorized to judge the degree of importance of each paper. If they decide a document doesn’t fall into the category of “historical public records and archives,” they can set the preservation period at less than one year.

The Finance Ministry has been criticized for exploiting this loophole, taking no time to discard records pertaining to the shady land deal that gave a whopping 86 percent discount for government-owned land to Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen last year.

The deal raised public suspicion because first lady Akie Abe served as honorary chairwoman for one of the school’s kindergartens.

Ministry officials have claimed there was nothing inappropriate about the land sale, and they discarded the records in accordance with the current guidelines.

The new draft guidelines thus basically oblige the government to preserve for at least a year any administrative paper.

As an exception, the government will be allowed to discard documents in less than one year if they are “expected to have an extremely small impact” on government decision-making.

The guidelines provide seven examples of such papers, including miscellaneous schedule memos and papers that contain obvious errors. Ministries are also obliged to appoint someone to manage government documents.

“At present, we have no way to know how government documents are handled or who is responsible for making decisions on those matters. In that sense, the guidelines mark a step forward” to enhance transparency, said Dokkyo’s Usaki.

Hajime Sebata, an associate professor at Nagano Prefectural College who is familiar with the history of government document management, said the seven examples will “considerably narrow down” the categories of papers the government will be allowed to quickly discard.

“It’ll no doubt be difficult to throw away documents in the dark,” he said.

But in the end, bureaucrats will still have the final say over which documents can be discarded within a year, the two experts said.

Another problem is the shortage of officials who can monitor the handling of sensitive documents. The government has an advisory panel of outside experts on document management, but it has only seven members. Even the National Archives of Japan, which is tasked with preserving selected administrative papers, has a staff of only about 50.

With the small staff, they would have a hard time checking how bureaucrats in each ministry rate and select tons of documents that can be discarded over a short period of time, Usaki said.

In the cover-up scandal over the South Sudan operational logs, the GSDF tried to hide records by insisting they are “private references” held by GSDF officers, not “administrative documents” to be made public under the 1999 information disclosure act upon request.

The draft guidelines stipulate that such private memos be strictly separated from government documents and put in restricted computer folders for private data only.

But the guidelines do not stipulate where to draw the line between “administrative documents” and “private reference materials.”

“Concerns will remain that officials may put some documents in a ‘private folder’ so that they will not be disclosed to the public,” Usaki said. “Who will make the decision and who could check it? Questions will remain.”

Another contentious issue in the guidelines is allowing only one version to be kept of minutes for meetings attended by several ministries.

In the alleged government favoritism toward Kake Gakuen, internal documents produced by education officials were leaked to the media that quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” was to allow Kake Gakuen to open a new veterinary medicine department at one of its universities as quickly as possible in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.

Abe and the Cabinet Office have strongly denied this — a classic he said/she said.

Under the new guidelines, when officials from multiple ministries meet, minutes or other records should be produced only after attendants have checked the draft for “accuracy.”

But that could allow each ministry to remove remarks they don’t want made public, said Sebata of Nagano Prefectural College.

If there are conflicts of opinion among ministries, each side should separately produce its own records. That would leave far more “accurate” records of a meeting, Sebata argued.

Sebata also called for a third party that can monitor how bureaucrats handle administrative documents to be preserved.

“You need to invest money and create a system to monitor how government documents are being managed,” he said. “An outside body is needed to check and take corrective actions if problems emerge.”

Otherwise, without outside pressure, any guidelines could end up becoming toothless issues of voluntary compliance, he said.