Photo/IllutrationOpposition lawmakers test the speed of a large shredder at the Cabinet Office in Tokyo on Nov. 26. (Provided by an opposition bloc task force)

A series of scandals in the past couple of years forced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to promise to take steps to improve the way his administration deals with official documents.

The Abe administration, however, apparently failed to learn vital lessons from revelations about the shockingly poor management of government documents concerning the dubious sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based school operator linked to Abe’s wife, Akie, the government’s decision to allow the Kake Educational Institution, run by a close friend of Abe, to open a new veterinary medicine faculty and Self-Defense Forces peacekeeping operations in South Sudan.

Clearly, the importance of keeping records of administrative activities for later reviews and assessments is not shared widely among government officials.

Despite a flurry of news reports about various problems concerning “Sakura wo miru kai,” an annual cherry blossom-viewing event hosted by the prime minister, the truth remains elusive. That’s partly because Abe has not fulfilled his responsibility to explain the facts, and more importantly, because the most relevant documents--the lists of the people invited to the events--have been destroyed.

The Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat, which are responsible for making the lists of the guests based on recommendations from the prime minister, the ruling parties and ministries and agencies, decided to preserve the records for less than one year and usually destroy them immediately after the events are held.

But such lists are generally kept as references used in deciding on who should be invited to the next year’s event. The government’s explanation about this policy--that it is risky to keep a large amount of personal information for too long--is far from convincing.

It emerged that many of the lists of recommended guests submitted by ministries and agencies to the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat were preserved for more than a year.

It was only last year that the lists of guests for the sakura events were assigned to the category of official documents that should be destroyed within a year.

This fact has raised the suspicion that the “risk of keeping personal information” narrative was cooked up only to ensure that the lists are disposed of quickly.

It has also been revealed that the list for this year’s event was put through a larger shredder about one hour after a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker demanded official documents concerning the event for questions at the Diet.

The government claims that the official who carried out the shredding task was not aware of the lawmaker’s demand and the use of the shredder to dispose of the list on that day had been decided beforehand. This is a very suspicious “coincidence.”

The owner of Japan Life, a bankrupt company under investigation by police for allegedly fraudulent rental business operations, apparently received an invitation to the cherry blossom party on the basis of a recommendation from Abe the year after the company was ordered by the Consumer Affairs Agency in 2014 to improve its operations.

It is also said that so-called anti-social elements, a vague term used for gangsters and other dodgy groups, attended the publicly funded bash.

The government says it is no longer possible to confirm whether these allegations are true because the relevant lists have been destroyed. This only underscores the importance of preserving the records.

While many of the lists of recommended guests have survived, those concerning recommendations from political parties and politicians have been mostly destroyed.

There have been a slew of cases in which potentially sensitive records linked to politicians have been erased or otherwise disappeared.

The prime minister’s official residence does not keep records of meetings between the prime minister and senior bureaucrats.

Many ministries and agencies make it a rule to destroy daily schedules of ministers immediately, often the days they are made, according to nonprofit organization “Joho Kokai (information disclosure) Clearing House.”

A series of administrative reforms has given politicians greater power and control over the policymaking process.

Keeping good records of politicians’ words and deeds is vital for injecting transparency into administrative operations and improving the effectiveness of later reviews of policy decisions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 30