For the first time since Japan adopted the Cabinet system in 1885, the government on April 22 disclosed to the public the minutes of a Cabinet meeting and a following ministerial meeting, both held on April 1.
“This is a historic first step,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gloated over the disclosure. New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi called it an “epoch-making” attempt.
We welcome the information disclosure itself. However, the manner in which this was done was hardly satisfactory, and we definitely do not share the enthusiasm of Abe and Yamaguchi.
At the April 1 meeting, the Cabinet effectively lifted the nation’s self-imposed ban on weapons exports and replaced it with the new “three principles of defense equipment transfer.” The decision represented a major turning point in Japan’s post-World War II pacifist policy that was grounded in the spirit of the Constitution.
According to the minutes, however, the minsters in charge merely “expressed their resolve” to apply the new principles appropriately, while Abe was quoted as saying, “I think it is most important to explain the purpose of the new principles in a way the people can understand, and make efforts to gain their understanding.”
This meeting ended in only 12 minutes, and the entire transcript is written on four pages of A4-size paper. Is this the reality of a Cabinet meeting, which serves as the supreme government session for making final policy decisions? The sheer absence of substance is almost incredible.
Granted, it has often been said that Cabinet meetings are extremely formalized and that in-depth discussions rarely take place even at the more casual ministerial meetings that follow.
But if the disclosed minutes are an indication of how little the Cabinet ministers have to say about policies, then the fundamental question that arises is, “Where are the nation’s policy decisions really made?”
What makes the situation even more frustrating is that we have no means of verifying whether the disclosed minutes accurately reflect what was really discussed during the Cabinet meeting. The disclosure is based on the Cabinet’s decision, and it is not a legal requirement.
In fact, the “minutes” are actually nothing more than notes taken by the deputy chief Cabinet secretary and other officials present at the meeting. As such, we have no idea exactly what standards are being followed in the compilation of the minutes.
The prime minister has said, “From the standpoint of information disclosure, it is desirable to swiftly make public the information under the current laws.” But Abe is missing the whole point.
The compilation and disclosure of minutes is not a “public service.” Article 1 of the law on management of public records and archives defines public records as “intellectual resources to be shared by the people in supporting the basis of sound democracy.” The purpose of this law is to keep records of who made the decisions and why, so that they can be examined by future generations.
So long as the government neglects its responsibility to history, there is no point whatsoever in disclosing information that cannot be verified, no matter how swiftly the government makes it public.
The public records management law needs to be revised so that not only Cabinet meetings and ministerial meetings but also all other meetings that affect vital policy decisions, such as meetings of the Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council, will be required to keep their minutes. The minutes should be disclosed to the public in principle after a certain number of years.
Only when such changes have been made can the prime minister rightfully say that a “historic first step” has been taken.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 23
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