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World The strange tale of Japan’s prime minister, official documents and a very large shredder

20:05  27 november  2019
20:05  27 november  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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TOKYO —The guest list for a controversial state-funded party? Shredded.

Shinzo Abe wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to media at his office Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Tokyo.© AP/AP Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to media at his office Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Tokyo.

Lists of visitors to the prime minister’s office? Shredded.

Journals showing the dangers encountered by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces on duty in Sudan and Iraq? Initially said to have been shredded, although they were later rediscovered.

Important papers relating to a school scandal that threatened to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Some falsified, some shredded.

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The Abe administration’s secretive approach to government papers — and an industrial-size shredder that can dispose of 1,000 pages of official documents in a single load — are dominating the headlines in Japan this week, as the opposition and media cry foul.

Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister last week, but his approval ratings are falling on accusations that he used an annual state-funded party over the cherry blossom season to invite hundreds of his supporters and cronies.

On Monday, a group of opposition politicians tried unsuccessfully to gain access to the Cabinet Office to see a massive shredder, reportedly the Nakabayashi NSC-7510 Mark III, that has become the symbol of government coverup in Japan.

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Initially turned away, they came back on Tuesday to test the machine and discovered that it could shred an 800-page guest list in just over 30 seconds. On its website, Nakabayashi boasts that the shredder can dispose of 550 kilograms (1,200 pounds) of paper in an hour.

Smaller shredders exist in each department of the Cabinet Office, officials say.

“One wonders just how many pages of official documents are being fed into those machines every day in Kasumigaseki, the seat of Japanese bureaucracy,” the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in a scathing front-page commentary. “Whenever a scandal surfaces, the bureaucrats’ go-to excuse is that all pertinent documents have been ‘discarded’ or ‘cannot be located.’ Perhaps this is what they have to say to survive under the Abe administration.”

Opposition politicians argue that the guest list for an annual party held by the prime minister to observe cherry blossoms in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in April had grown to an unsustainable size, with 15,000 people invited at a total cost of 55 million yen ($500,000) and with members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party being rewarded with tickets.

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They alleged that members of organized crime groups have been invited — as well as a businessman whose former company has been accused of defrauding the elderly through an investment scheme — to mix with politicians, diplomats, celebrities and other public figures under the blossom-laded trees. Concerns also have been raised about a reception held at a Tokyo hotel on the eve of the outdoor party.

On May 9, Japanese Communist Party member Toru Miyamoto requested that the guest list for the party be released, only to be told that it had already been destroyed to protect the privacy of the invitees.

Now, it has emerged that the 800-page document was shredded on May 9, the same day Miyamoto asked for it, with the electronic record deleted before that day.

Pure coincidence, the government insists: The shredder has to be booked in advance and simply cannot be used at a moment’s notice.

“If we can confirm the guests include people who are not qualified, there is a possibility that such an act could be illegal. In that sense, the list is part of evidence,” said Takahiro Kuroiwa of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, who is part of an opposition team investigating the issue.

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In the United States, the Presidential Records Act stipulates that all papers touched by the president have to be preserved as historical records and sent to the National Archives. But there is a different problem in Washington: President Trump’s enduring habit of ripping up papers and throwing them in the trash, according to Politico, which reported that a team of people is tasked with piecing the fragments back together.

Japan has long lagged behind other Western democracies such as the United States in terms of freedom of information, but it did pass a “Law Concerning Access to Information Held by Administrative Organs” in 1999.

The problem, critics say, is that the Abe administration has been systematically breaking those rules and rolling back the law’s provisions since he took office in 2012.

“It seems to be a recurring pattern of tampering with and destroying documents to hide inconvenient facts,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“Also, they seem to have been changing the rules in the other direction, pushing back the clock and also trying to find ways to get away with not being so forthcoming about public records,” he said. “And so this is a mixture of rule-breaking and also rule-changing.”

Nakano said this is partly a result of the personalized control of the government and bureaucracy that Abe is able to exert after more than seven years in power. But it is also a function of the prime minister’s personality, one that just becomes more apparent the longer he stays in power, he said.

“It is a sign of the prime minister’s hubris,” Kuroiwa said.

Although Japanese law stipulates that, in principle, government documents should be kept for at least a year, it allows bureaucrats discretion to destroy them before that date if deemed appropriate. That is one of the problems for the opposition, Kuroiwa said.

Earlier this month, Abe abruptly announced that the cherry blossom viewing party would be suspended next year pending a review. But that announcement has apparently not restored public trust.

simon.denyer@washpost.com

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