Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to questions from reporters at his Dec. 4 news conference. (Takeshi Iwashita)

An expert in public document management rebuked the chief government spokesman’s claim that a digital backup version of a now-shredded guest list for a tax-paid party cannot be considered an official administrative document.

“He does not have a correct understanding of public document management,” Hiroshi Miyake, a lawyer who once served on the government’s Public Records and Archives Management Commission, said about Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Suga has been asked repeatedly about why the government has appeared loath to release the roster for this year’s cherry blossom viewing party in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

Suspicions had arisen that many of the guests invited to the annual event were supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other political bigwigs.

However, the guest list was shredded an hour after an opposition party lawmaker submitted a request for it.

On Dec. 4, Suga acknowledged at his daily news conference that an electronic version of the document had been stored in a government computer used to hold backup data.

But he said that version could not be considered an “administrative document” because government officials were unable to easily share the backup data through free access.

He emphasized that files or data could only be considered administrative documents if they could be widely shared by ministry officials.

Miyake said Suga’s definition was completely wrong.

The lawyer explained that under the law, once a physical paper document or its related electronic data no longer exists, any backup data on government computers becomes the administrative document.

Miyake also explained that government officials are obligated under the law to provide the backup data in place of the original document upon the request of a lawmaker.

Toru Miyamoto, a lawmaker from the Japanese Communist Party, submitted a request on May 9 for documents related to the annual cherry blossom viewing party hosted by Abe and held at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in April.

Miyamoto was unable to obtain the paper or digital versions.

When he asked about the party roster at the May 21 session of the Lower House Financial Affairs Committee, a high-ranking official of the Cabinet Office explained that it had already been destroyed.

It later turned out that the roster was shredded an hour after Miyamoto submitted his request.

Government officials also explained that the electronic data for the document was deleted between May 7 and 9.

However, Suga on Dec. 4 acknowledged that the electronic data for the roster was likely kept in a government backup computer for up to eight weeks, as is normal practice.

That would mean that the data was available not only when Miyamoto submitted his request but also when he asked about the documents in the Diet.

Suga said the public document no longer existed at the moment government officials deleted the original electronic data.

He also said the backup data could only have been recovered from the computer by asking an outside company that handles such matters.

Miyake pointed to a past example of supposedly destroyed data to reinforce his argument that Suga has a mistaken understanding of public documents.

In 2016, a journalist requested disclosure of daily logs kept by Ground Self-Defense Force members who were participating in a U.N. peacekeeping operation in South Sudan. Reports had surfaced that the GSDF members may have been placed in an area of combat, a violation of the conditions for the dispatch.

The government, however, said the logs had already been destroyed so the information was unavailable.

The following year, a Defense Ministry investigation found that the GSDF logs did exist in the form of electronic data.

That information was divulged, and the scandal led to the resignation of the top officer in the GSDF.

(This article was compiled from reports by Ryutaro Abe and Yuichi Nobira.)