Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe takes questions from reporters who waited for him at the entrance to the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Nov. 15, 2019. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

If the government is allowed to get away with its disturbingly sloppy way of managing official documents, it will become difficult for the public to monitor its policy decisions and actions.

The upshot will be a gradual erosion of the foundation of democracy.

That is why it is vital for the government to make an exhaustive investigation into allegations concerning tax-financed cherry blossom viewing parties hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and clarify responsibility issues.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Jan. 10 acknowledged that the government violated the public records law as well as the Cabinet Office’s internal document management rules by mishandling “now-destroyed” lists of people invited to the events.

The acknowledgement by the top government spokesman has belied the government’s previous and repeated claim that the lists had been properly kept and destroyed according to the rules.

Under the public records management law, which went into force in 2011, government employees are required to enter basic information concerning official documents into the government’s document management register, including the titles and the period of preservation, if they are to be saved for a year or longer. The register is made available to public scrutiny.

But the guest lists for the sakura parties from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2017, when their period of preservation was one year, were destroyed without even being registered as official documents. In addition, the officials who were in charge of the documents related to the sakura-viewing events did not get the legally required consent from the prime minister before they were disposed of.

The records of the disposal were not kept either, in violation of a requirement by the government’s guidelines concerning the matter.

It is shocking to learn that such multiple violations of the regulations concerning official document management were committed for as long as five years.

In explaining the infractions last week, Suga described them as simple “clerical errors.” But on Jan. 14, he revised the explanation and said the procedures for dealing with the documents adopted in fiscal 2011 and 2012, under the previous government of the Democratic Party of Japan, had become “precedent” and continued to be followed in and after fiscal 2013 without being reviewed.

It is hard to believe his claim that the way the documents were handled in fiscal 2011 and 2012, when the event was canceled, has been used as a precedent.

The term of preservation for the guest list was shortened to less than one year in fiscal 2018, exempting the document from the registration requirement. Then, the list started being destroyed immediately after the event.

This kind of guest list is usually preserved for the preparations for the next year’s event. The government has said the swift destruction was a step to avoid the risks of keeping a huge amount of personal information. But this claim is also hard to take at face value.

Since Abe became prime minister for a second time in December 2012, the number of guests for the annual party has continued growing year after year. The lists included many members of his support group as well as friends and acquaintances of his wife, Akie, who personally made recommendations for who should be invited.

The question is whether the questionable handling of the guest lists reflected the administration’s desire to avoid making these facts public.

The Abe administration has a history of cover-up scandals that have trampled on the people’s right to know, such as the Finance Ministry’s falsification of official documents concerning the dubious sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator linked to Akie Abe. It also was involved in the cover-up of Ground Self-Defense Force daily logs concerning its mission in South Sudan as part of U.N. peacekeeping operations, which had to be discontinued after the local security situation worsened.

To ensure that there will be no more violations of the rules concerning official document management by government employees, Abe and Suga need to spearhead the government’s efforts to re-examine and reassess the system and take effective steps to prevent a recurrence.

Such efforts, needless to say, should be based on Abe’s own actions to fulfill his responsibility to explain in a convincing manner what actually happened.

There is a long list of policy issues that need to be addressed during the regular Diet session that will start on Jan. 20.

To secure fruitful policy debate during the session, Abe needs to refrain from his usual tactic of avoiding debate on sensitive issues as much as possible, which he resorted to again during the autumn extraordinary Diet session, and give clear, straightforward answers to questions from opposition parties.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 15