It is appalling that the Ground Self-Defense Force hid the existence of daily activity logs of its troops dispatched to Iraq from 2004 to 2006 for more than a year without reporting it to top Defense Ministry officials. The revelation raises not just serious questions about civilian control of the SDF, but doubts over adequate management of public documents by the government organization — a problem also highlighted by the Finance Ministry’s recent admission that its bureaucrats tampered with official records over the sale of a government-owned tract of land to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered his “deep apology” over what he acknowledged as a “grave problem that could concern civilian control” of the SDF and damage public trust in the administration of the government. He promised to lead the effort to regain popular trust in administrative service — which should involve an overhaul of the system managing official documents and their disclosure for public review of the government’s decision-making process.

The dispatch of GSDF troops to the Iraq city of Samawah, on a humanitarian aid mission following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was the first deployment of an SDF unit to a country where a conflict was taking place. The issue of SDF members’s activity logs from the 2004-2006 Iraq mission was taken up in the Diet just as the Defense Ministry was grilled over reports compiled by SDF troops on a peacekeeping mission to South Sudan — which it initially said had been destroyed in response to an information disclosure request. Later it confirmed they had been kept.

When the opposition camp called for disclosure of the Iraq mission logs in February last year, then Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the ministry was unable to find the documents. Early this month, however, defense chief Itsunori Onodera acknowledged that more than 10,000 pages of records kept on the Iraq mission exist — and that they had been found at the GSDF in late March of 2017. Although the Iraq mission logs were reportedly found in the process of special inspection over the South Sudan mission documents, the findings were never reported to Inada or other lawmakers in top ministry positions. Onodera said he was informed of the findings late last month, while the ministry’s Joint Staff Office received an official report in February. It means that the fact had been kept hidden from the defense minister for more than a year.

The ministry says it is investigating how and why the information was kept under wraps for so long — as well as who exactly within the SDF or Defense Ministry organizations were aware of the fact. If the GSDF uniformed officers kept the information secret out of their own intentions, that raises serious doubts over control of the SDF by civilian officials including the defense minister.

The government’s official documents are a common public property crucial for citizens to review the state’s policy and decision making process. The sheer confusion over storage of the Iraq mission logs points to improper management of such documents. Attempts by the bureaucracy to cover up these documents or alter their contents infringe on the people’s right to know and constitute a breach of public trust.

The problem is all the more serious given the earlier revelation that the Finance Ministry had tampered with its own documents concerning the 2016 sale of a government-owned land plot in Osaka Prefecture to Moritomo Gakuen at a questionable discount. The ministry doctored the original text of its documents to delete references to the names of several politicians as well as the prime minister’s wife, Akie Abe, who at one point served as “honorary principal” of an elementary school that was to be built on the site, when they were submitted to the Diet last year. It was only last month — after the story was broken in a media report — that the ministry admitted that its officials had altered the documents before disclosing them to the Diet. Much of how and why the documents were altered — including who gave such orders — remains shrouded in mystery.

The law on managing public documents was enacted in 2009 to set standard rules on compiling and storing such documents following a series of revelations of poor handling of administrative documents by government ministries and agencies. Along with the information disclosure law introduced in 2001, the legislation was deemed to constitute a key infrastructure that backs the people’s right to know. However, the recent spate of fiascos shows that the mechanism in place is insufficient to ensure against poor management of public documents. A major overhaul of the legislation, including punishment for those who tamper with or cover up such documents, is needed to regain public trust in the system.

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