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Improvements are essential for managing archives

  • COURTESY PHOTO

    A development plan for a new archive features up to 50,000 square meters to be built in the Nagatacho area of Chiyoda ward, Tokyo. The current National Archives of Japan is pictured.

Official documents created by administrative organizations are intellectual resources jointly owned by the people. Awareness of the importance of managing and preserving them must be heightened.

A panel of experts established by the Cabinet Office has compiled a development plan for a new National Archives of Japan. Under the plan, a facility with a total floor space of up to 50,000 square meters will be built in the Nagatacho area of Chiyoda ward, Tokyo.

The present National Archives of Japan will see its storage space reach full capacity as early as fiscal year 2019. The new facility will have archive storerooms that are 3-1/2 times larger than the present ones, capable of preserving about 50 years’ worth of official documents.

The government will start drawing up a basic plan. Steady progress must be made.

The public records and archives management law, which came into force in 2011, stipulates that the central government and independent administrative agencies should preserve their official documents, in principle, setting preservation periods ranging from one to 30 years. It also stipulates that these institutions should transfer documents, upon the expiration of their preservation period, to the National Archives of Japan or to the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Archives for the public to freely peruse.

The problem is there are so many official documents that have not been made public even when the term of preservation expired.

Conspicuous cases include ministries hanging on to their documents by extending the term of preservation or disposing of them. In fiscal year 2015, only about 9,600 documents out of about 2.9 million, or only 0.3 percent of the total, were transferred to the National Archives of Japan or elsewhere.

Improve document handling

Each ministry and agency has established its own rules regarding terms of preservation, in line with the government’s management guidelines. They are supposed to obtain the prime minister’s consent when disposing of documents instead of transferring them to archives.

As things stand now, however, ministries and agencies scrap at their own discretion documents that they deem unnecessary to preserve. Regarding the selling of a state-owned land plot to Moritomo Gakuen, the Finance Ministry has discarded the documents recording its negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, because the ministry did not treat them as documents worth preserving.

Also striking are the cases in which important public records have been treated in a slovenly way. At least nearly 1,000 documents were found to have been either lost or mistakenly scrapped in the five years from the enforcement of the law.

In reviewing the decision-making processes on important policies and their appropriateness, checking records is essential.

The Cabinet Office will revise the management guidelines in fiscal year 2017. By stipulating in more detail the types of documents that should be preserved and the term of preservation, it will encourage ministries and agencies to improve their preservation of documents. It will also consider posting to each ministry and agency officials who specialize in judging whether documents should be preserved, classifying them and putting them in order.

One way of fostering experts specializing in the management of archives, of whom there are far too few in Japan compared with the United States and European countries, may be to establish a national qualification system.

To make the new National Archives of Japan a useful facility for the public, it will be important to improve the system for managing and preserving the increasing number of documents, in addition to promoting changes in the awareness at ministries and agencies.

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