Eight years after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the majority of the 42 municipalities in the three most affected prefectures have or may have disposed of official documents related to the disaster.

The municipalities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures reported throwing out the records because there were no unified rules on their preservation, according to an Asahi Shimbun survey.

The survey spotlights the necessity of seeking measures to preserve official documents, which were made at the time of the disaster or during the reconstruction process, to the fullest extent possible.

Hiroshi Okumura, professor of historical materials at Kobe University, said that such documents could show the circumstances at the time of disasters and how the central and local governments and residents responded, regardless of how long they had been kept.

“(Therefore) it is necessary to preserve them as long as possible as documents to prepare for future disasters,” he said.

The Public Records Management Law took effect in April 2011, a month after the twin disasters that hit the three prefectures of the Tohoku region and surrounding areas.

Based on the law, the Cabinet Office required the organizations of the central government in 2012 to appropriately preserve their documents related to the disaster.

In notifying them of the requirement, the office said that preservation of those documents is “a historically important policy to share the records as a state and a society.”

However, local governments were not subject to the order.

The Asahi Shimbun conducted the survey of the 42 municipalities in January and February.

The municipalities were preserving their respective disaster-related documents based on the law or their internal policies.

The survey asked the municipalities if they had discarded some of those official documents as their preservation periods had expired.

Six municipalities replied that they have discarded some of the documents, and 16 other municipalities responded that they may have discarded some of them.

The documents that have already been discarded included notifications from the central government and lists of names of volunteer workers.

As for why they disposed of the documents, Tagajo city of Miyagi Prefecture said, “The preservation period had expired.”

Iitate village in Fukushima Prefecture said, “We don’t have space to preserve all the documents.”

The survey also asked the 42 municipalities about whether they have documents they plan to discard after their preservation periods expire.

Twelve municipalities replied that they have such documents and 17 answered that they have not yet decided how to deal with those records.

Many of the 42 municipalities were leaving management of the official documents up to their respective divisions.

Therefore, what is important for the preservation is whether each municipal government decided as a whole to preserve the documents and when it made the decision, if it decided to preserve them.

For example, Kesennuma city in Miyagi Prefecture decided in 2018 that it would not discard the documents for the time being. That means that it could have chosen to dispose of them before 2018.

Meanwhile, Kamaishi city in Iwate Prefecture, which replied that it has not discarded any documents of the kind, decided in 2012 to permanently preserve all its disaster-related records.

In addition to official documents, memos written by municipal government employees, records written on whiteboards and photographs are also important records of the disaster.

However, 10 of the 42 municipalities replied that they were not preserving those type records.

Okumura acknowledged the difficulty for each municipality to do so, given the constraints of space and manpower.

“(Because of that) it is necessary for the central and prefectural governments to establish systems to support municipalities, such as securing space for them or dispatching their employees for the job of preserving the documents,” he said.