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The National Archives of Japan will introduce a system in fiscal 2020 to certify archivists amid growing public criticism of lax management of official records by the government.

The certification system is aimed at improving the maintenance of public records. But experts question whether it will help reduce problems involving improper record management.

"The standard for major countries is to hire and utilize experts for the maintenance of official records in their administrative organs," Hirooki Hosaka, professor of archival science at Gakushuin University Gradual School of Humanities and a member of the Public Records and Archives Management Commission in the Cabinet Office, said at a meeting of the panel last December.

"Japan should make use of this standard routinely and raise the level of maintenance for public records," Hosaka said.

Japan stands behind other advanced countries in the management of public records. In 2019, Japan trailed the United States, Britain, Germany, France and South Korea in the number of staff members, archival volume and size of national archives.

In particular, Japan has a staff of only 188, including 56 part-time workers, in comparison with 2,884 in the United States.

Archivists therefore should be nurtured as an "urgent" task, said Seigo Kitamura, minister of state for regulatory reform responsible for the management of public records.

An archivist needs not only to maintain, preserve and use documents but also have adequate knowledge about digitization and information technology.

The National Archives will screen applications to examine the expertise of prospective archivists in terms of knowledge and skills, research and study capability, and hands-on experience. Applicants who pass in all three categories will be certified as "authenticated archivists" by the president of the National Archives.

The National Archives will set up a certification committee in April and begin accepting applications around September. The first certification is expected to be granted in January 2021.

Specifically, authenticated archivists will be required, among other things, to hold a degree equivalent to a master's and have work experience of three years or more in principle. They will have to renew their certification every five years, to ensure they maintain the required level of expertise.

"We need to certify 1,000 or so archivists by fiscal 2026," when the National Archives' new building is due to be completed, President Takeo Kato said. "We hope to raise the certification to a national credential in the future."

While public records are described as "shared assets of the nation," their treatment under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has caused a series of problems.

Documents on the controversial sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen at a steep discount were falsified by Finance Ministry bureaucrats, while the Defense Ministry concealed daily activity logs compiled by the Ground Self-Defense Force unit dispatched to South Sudan for U.N. peacekeeping operations. In addition, the public records management law was violated in connection with a state-funded cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Abe.

Authenticated archivists are expected to work in the National Archives and the archives of local governments and the ministries and agencies of the central government, and help their personnel to become more keenly aware of the importance of maintaining public records and improve their related skills.

But an official at the Cabinet Office said, "Frankly, I don't know if the problems will decrease."

While welcoming the certification system, Muneyuki Shindo, professor emeritus of public administration at Chiba University, said the system will be "hardly meaningful without a political decision to allow authenticated experts to play the central role of managing public records at government ministries."

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