Poor handling of government documents

Article 1 of the law on management and storage of official documents, which went into effect in 2011, says that official documents of government organizations are the people’s intellectual property underpinning the foundation of a healthy democracy. The law is a legacy of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who decided that the sloppy handling of official documents must stop and that politics must be brought closer to the people by easing their access to such documents.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other government leaders and officials should reflect on whether the current administration is upholding the spirit of the law. Regrettably, recent events concerning official documents point to the contrary. It is the duty of government leaders and bureaucrats to achieve the law’s purpose of enhancing administrative organizations’ accountability through proper management of official documents. The administration and the Diet should also move to plug loopholes in the law and related rules.

In December, the Defense Ministry turned down a freelance journalist’s request for daily activity logs of Self-Defense Force personnel deployed to South Sudan for the United Nations-led peacekeeping operation from July 7 to 12 last year. While the ministry rejected the disclosure on the grounds that the logs had been destroyed, the Joint Staff Office in January told Defense Minister Tomomi Inada that the reports existed in the form of electronic data — and the logs were finally made public in early February. Later, Inada confirmed that all of the daily activity logs of the SDF peacekeepers dating back to the start of the South Sudan operation have been kept in the form of electronic data. The incident demonstrated sloppiness by the ministry and SDF officials in managing official documents, and their lack of understanding concerning the duty to respect the people’s right to know.

In the scandal involving Moritomo Gakuen, it surfaced that the Osaka-based school operator acquired a 8,770-sq.-meter plot of state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, at an extremely low price for a new elementary school. It has been revealed that a government official assigned to Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife who once served as “honorary principal” of the planned school, had inquired with the Finance Ministry about the tract of land and passed the results of this inquiry on to Yasunori Kagoike, president of Moritomo Gakuen, who was seeking first to rent and then buy the plot at favorable terms. The school operator bought the land in June 2016 for ¥134 million, just 14 percent of its appraised value, with a discount of as much as ¥800 million ostensibly to cover the purchaser’s cost to dispose of waste found at the site. However, suspicions arose that the Finance Ministry offered a steep discount to Moritomo after taking into consideration the first lady’s involvement in the school.

Efforts to explore the truth behind the transaction have hit a snag because the Finance Ministry insists it has destroyed documents over the land deal, which it says it had decided to retain for less than a year. The ministry says it can destroy such a document as soon as the contract has been signed. Rules on management of official documents allow government organizations to designate documents that should be retained for less than a year. They are not required by the law to list such documents. That bureaucrats are given the discretion to decide documents’ retention period represents a loophole in the system for the management and storage of official documents.

In the government’s deregulatory measure to allow a school operator run by a longtime Abe friend to open a new veterinary medicine department at its university, education ministry documents surfaced suggesting that the Cabinet Office cited the “prime minister’s intent” in pushing the reluctant ministry to expedite the approval process, raising suspicions that favoritism may have played a role. However, the Abe administration insists that those documents are just memos written by the ministry’s officials and do not constitute official documents. The law defines official documents as those written by government workers in the execution of their jobs, used organizationally and kept by the administrative organization in question. Such a definition is too narrow. It should be expanded so that government organizations will be required to keep any documents that is necessary to examine their decision-making processes — whether or not they are organizationally used.

This series of events has exposed the problems in the 2011 law and its related rules. The government and the Diet should move quickly to fix them from the viewpoint of promoting transparency in government decision-making processes and guaranteeing the people’s access to them.