The law on the management of public documents describes administrative documents such as those concerning government decisions as the “people’s common intellectual property” that underpins a healthy democracy. Officials are required to store and manage such documents so that the government’s decision-making processes can be publicly reviewed in the future. The people’s right to know and thus keep the government in check would be undermined if these documents were destroyed or altered at the will of the bureaucracy or the administration in power.

The revelation that the Finance Ministry altered documents related to the 2016 sale of a government-owned tract of land to an Osaka-based school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, when it submitted them to the Diet last year represents a serious breach of public trust in the system. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has acknowledged that the situation could threaten public trust in the entire government administration. He offered an apology to the public, saying he is keenly aware of his responsibility as head of the government. He needs to follow through on his pledge to get to the bottom of the problem to expose why such an act — which many had said was unthinkable — had taken place, and build a mechanism to make sure such acts would never again take place.

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