Late last year, the Public Records and Archives Management Commission, a panel under the Cabinet Office, released a guideline on the preparation and preservation of administrative documents under which ministries and agencies should work out their own document management rules.

The basic ideas have been set forth. The essential thing is to have them operated properly so the administrative bodies will fulfill their duty toward the people, with whom resides sovereign power.

There was a controversy over the rules for keeping records of meetings between ministries, agencies or other parties. A draft document presented last autumn contained a provision saying that remarks to be quoted in official documents should be confirmed in advance by the parties to whom those remarks are attributed.

In response, many argued that such a measure would, on the contrary, prevent records from being kept accurately, because their keepers would begin making allowances in the drafting stage amid the power dynamics that exist between various ministries and agencies.

Those arguments were rightly made.

It suffices to recall the recent hubbub over the Kake Educational Institution’s new university faculty of veterinary medicine. A document discovered in the education ministry said an official of the Cabinet Office cited the “intent” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in pressuring the ministry to allow the faculty to be opened at such and such date.

The “confirmation” procedure in the draft document could be used to prevent similar records, which are problematic for the administration in office, from being kept in the future.

By taking the criticism into account, the commission included a passage in its new guideline saying that “a basic premise ... is for documents to be prepared ... in such a way that processes leading to decision-making ... can be followed or verified in a reasonable way.”

The guideline also set a provision for ensuring that no records will be readily discarded before they are checked for what they contain. One could say some positive steps have been made in these respects.

Further, the guideline narrowed the range and clearly defined seven categories of the documents that may be designated for preservation for less than a year. The revision was made in response to the recent development whereby many documents related to major scandals--one over daily reports of Japanese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan, and another over the school operator Moritomo Gakuen--were discarded under the designation of “preservation for less than a year,” thereby making facts unverifiable.

The revision has blocked a loophole in the old guideline, which ended up being exploited for its lack of a clear definition.

No matter how properly the guideline and rules may be set, however, bureaucrats could continue to operate them against the good of the public if their awareness remained the same.

For example, the categories of documents that can be designated for preservation for less than a year include one saying, “fixed-form or routine business correspondences, timetables.”

However, one does not even have to bring up the example of the South Sudan peacekeepers to argue that daily reports and timetables sometimes serve as vital materials for tracing decision-making processes.

We should not allow the new guideline to be applied only perfunctorily and its spirit of public records management to be emasculated.

Survey results reported last autumn by the government to the Public Records and Archives Management Commission cited plenty of cases whereby documents that should have been transferred to the National Archives of Japan were found unattended in libraries of ministries and agencies in an inferior state.

A law defines public records and archives as an “intellectual resource to be shared by the people.”

Bureaucrats should ruminate once again on what that passage means.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 14