Many records relevant to landmark civil cases since World War II no longer exist, having been disposed of by courts across the country, according to Kyodo News findings released Sunday.
Almost all judgments in the cases investigated have been preserved, but most of the other documents related to hearings during the trials were not, resulting in a loss of valuable historical records.
The almost 140 cases scrutinized were focused on issues such as nationality, freedom of expression, separation of state and religion, expropriation of land for national defense, and the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces.
Regulations stipulate that important court documents must be preserved by district courts, and experts say that their destruction may have been illegal.
In 137 constitutional civil cases probed by the news organization, documents relevant to judicial procedures had been discarded in 118, or 86 percent, of the cases. All documents were preserved for only 18 of the cases, while the status of documentation for one case has yet to be confirmed.
Under the regulations, documents that “should be historical records or reference data” must be kept “under special preservation.” However, even among the 18 cases where documents had been retained, special measures had only been applied in six cases and only one had been sent to the National Archives of Japan.
District courts are usually supposed to preserve records for five years after a decision or a resolution of disputes is reached. Decisions are supposed to be preserved for 50 years.
It was previously known that some records in famous cases had been discarded by the Tokyo District Court, but this is the first time that the extent of this practice nationwide has been revealed.
Cases in which records were discarded include a 2008 Supreme Court decision that ruled a nationality clause unconstitutional. The case was brought by Filipino women who sought citizenship for 10 children born out of wedlock with Japanese fathers.
Records had also been discarded in a 1982 court case lasting nine years that pitted residents of Naganuma in Hokkaido against central government. In the case, the government had sought the removal of an area from a designated forest reserve to build a missile base.
Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the government, the case was important in that the Sapporo District Court ruled that the SDF was unconstitutional.
Another case in which documents were discarded was a court battle between the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the central government over private land to be used for U.S. military facilities. Gov. Masahide Ota refused to renew the agreement allowing such use in 1995 amid residents’ anger over the rape of a local 12-year-old girl by U.S. servicemen.
Although the governor ultimately lost under a ruling by the Supreme Court, the case was another example of the tense relationship between Okinawa and the central government over U.S. military bases.
The top court, responding to questions by Kyodo News, said “it is each court’s individual decision” to determine whether to dispose of such records.
However, it did acknowledge the importance of preservation, citing “increasing societal interest in the historical value and in the necessity of preserving archives, including public and official records.”
Individuals related to or affected by the cases have expressed disappointment, with a lawyer in the Okinawa court case saying that the records were “the property of the people.”
“Most historic court cases are fought all the way up to the Supreme Court. It is perhaps necessary to have a system where the Supreme Court, which can determine the importance of the court cases, tells the district courts which records to preserve,” said Eiji Tsukahara, a law professor at Aoyama Gaukin University Law School.
“In the United States, it is understood (that record preservation) is necessary to protect freedom and democracy,” said Hiroshi Asako, a Waseda University professor emeritus who is an expert on judicial record preservation. While Asako acknowledged the cost associated with such a move, he added that “in Japan, there is a need for this to be better understood.”
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