Public records: Here today, gone tomorrow…

Dr. Mieko Nakabayashi speaking at G1 Global Conference 2019

First published by The Japan Times

Japan’s fascination with cherry blossoms extended well beyond the two-week viewing season this year, after Toru Miyamoto, a Lower House member of the opposition Japanese Communist Party, released a picture of the Cabinet Office’s massive paper shredder. The machine, capable of shredding a 1,000-page document in 40 seconds, curiously destroyed the 800-page guest list for the cherry blossom viewing party hosted in April by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — on the same day Miyamoto had asked for the document’s release.

Abe’s political opponents cried foul, claiming the guest list unfairly rewarded ruling party supporters at taxpayers’ expense. They believed the list had grown too large, leading to budget-busting cost overruns. Similar accusations of favoritism involving the sale of state-owned land to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen previously engulfed Abe’s administration.

Mieko Nakabayashi, a Waseda University political science professor and a former Lower House member, wonders why the government learned nothing from past experience. She believes lax record keeping undermines democracy.

In other countries, such as the United States, better record keeping allows for inspection of important public documents. Decision-makers can be held accountable for their actions, if needed. But when documents are trashed, democracy is undermined. “I can’t believe it! It wouldn’t happen in the U.S.— even at the staff level,” she says.

Nakabayashi is well-placed to compare archiving practices in Japan and the U.S. Between 1993 and 2002 she worked in Washington at the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget. From 2002 to 2005 she worked in Tokyo at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, a resident think tank within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The two experiences could not have differed more.

When she first started working in Washington, Nakabayashi saw for herself the depths the U.S. government takes to preserve official records. As far as she could tell, the Budget Committee recorded and archived every document, memo, telephone call and message. They even recorded receipt of small gifts, like beer or wine.

For example, all notepads had carbon copies which she placed in a special box in accordance with instructions given to her by an archivist. “We had to rip off the top page to give to the boss and then leave the carbon copies for safekeeping,” she recounts.

Once in the early 1990s she asked the computer administrator for help, after losing an electronic document due to a power outage. He responded by asking which dates needed retrieval. “They recorded everything — email, word documents, and Lotus 1-2-3 electronic spreadsheets,” she discovered.

On another occasion, in the mid-1990s, a coworker suddenly disappeared and never returned. Nobody knew why. Eventually, staff learned the person was caught watching child pornography on the office computer and fired. “I realized that all the websites we viewed were also recorded.” The experience gave her pause for thought. “We had better not do anything bad,” she told herself.

As well as an archivist and computer administrator, an appointed person scheduled all meetings and another took all calls. None of her coworkers ever formally discussed the archival system. Rather, they naturally followed routine procedures. “This is American democracy,” she thought.

On returning to Japan in 2002, Nakabayashi saw big and small shredders spread throughout RIETI’s offices. Staff shredded documents immediately after completing assignments. “It felt so awkward to see public documents being trashed,” she says. Seventeen years later, she remains dismayed by Japan’s slipshod attitude toward public record-keeping.

Why does Japan’s government treat document preservation so lightly?

Senior policymakers often brought important documents home with them in the past. After World War II, most did not want to leave incriminating evidence behind. So they destroyed them before they died, limiting attribution to that of collective responsibility. However, some surviving historic records are being released by their descendants for the first time.

Officials may also have wished to conceal “muddle through” decision-making. Unlike American “hero” leadership style, Japanese prefer to make collective decisions. “This applies not only to politicians but to bureaucrats as well,” Nakabayashi notes.

Ironically, historic records of Japan’s post-World War II political history are mostly kept in the U.S. rather than in Japan. So political scientists, like Nakabayashi, must access the U.S. National Archives to research the nation’s own political history. “Can you believe that?” she asks.

Preserving the past is not just an academic exercise. Doing so thwarts leaders from placing their own interests above those of their countrymen. Like cherry blossoms in bloom, democracy may otherwise prove short-lived.

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