PM’s Olympic records must be archived

A ceremony was held in Tokyo on July 1 to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the National Archives of Japan. I felt deeply moved as I listened to lectures given by guest speakers, including former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

A few years after the inauguration of the facility, I began shuttling to and from it as a fledgling scholar. I tried to gather as much information as possible about Japan’s modern politics by combing page after page of cabinet documents and policy records dating back to the Meiji era (1868-1912). Those archives pertained to genkun (elder statesmen), who led the Meiji Restoration and formed the top echelon of the political sphere in those days.

At the National Achieves, I also indulged in reading documents relating to administrative reform efforts of party-affiliated politicians in the Taisho era (1912-26) and Showa era (1926-89). Thanks to those documents, I could directly sense the policy differences between the two major prewar parties — Seiyukai and Minseito. I feel nostalgic for those days when I touched the essence of learning.

Government documents gradually became more comprehensive in the postwar years. Nonetheless, Japanese government officials had not been so enthusiastic until a certain time about storing and managing government documents in archives. As the 21st century began, I think not only government officials but also politicians and the public became gradually aware of how important it was to keep records and memories of the past in archives for the future. This observation reflects what I experienced as a member of the Cabinet Office’s Independent Administrative Institution Evaluation Commission and the Cabinet Office’s Public Records and Archives Management Commission.

Exactly because of the increased awareness of the importance of storing government documents, cases of document alteration have been the subject of grave questioning since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration. The word “accountability” has been treated with considerable disrespect. Therefore, government documents now are more important.

In fiscal 2028, a new National Archives building will be completed just outside the National Diet Building. I strongly want people making walking tours of key government institutions, including the National Diet Building, the National Diet Library, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister’s Office, to visit the new National Archives as well.

Such a visit can be a rare opportunity for the public to know the meaning of reviewing future visions from the past. I want the new National Archives to function as a venue for the public — young people in particular — to have a close look at the way government decision-making takes place.

The current administration has been exposed to strong criticism for its decision-making process regarding measures for the novel coronavirus pandemic and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. When the early years of the Reiwa era are recalled in future, it will likely become clear that the recent decisions to declare a fourth COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo and hold most Games competitions without spectators were of great significance.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s pledge to “hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as a symbol of overcoming COVID-19” now has become practically meaningless.

It is natural for the Suga administration to have a sense of crisis as it is afraid that its approval ratings may turn from “gradual decline” into “free fall.” The administration, of course, has to have the relevant decision-making processes accurately recorded in writing.

What is required of the Suga administration is to unambiguously explain to the nation once more why it has decided to hold the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suga was inaugurated as prime minister in the autumn of 2020 with a pledge to carry on the Abe administration’s policies. Further, in the previous administration, Suga served as chief cabinet secretary, meaning he was then Prime Minister Abe’s right-hand man. For those reasons, the Suga administration seemed to have inherited everything from the preceding administration.

But that is no longer relevant. I want Suga to free himself from the influence of the Abe administration and speak, even in a halting manner, to the nation about his view of what Japan should be like after the Games, while taking the emergence of a post-pandemic society into account.

If he aims to build a relationship with the people, he should refrain from employing such tactics as delaying the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election scheduled for late September. As the incumbent president of the LDP, Suga should openly and squarely vie in the party election without changing its schedule. He should know that when one is prone to losing one’s way, it is imperative to determinedly follow through with whatever can be done and devote oneself fully.

What the government should now do in earnest is carry on what was adopted as a national task 10 years ago in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The task is to have the postwar period succeeded by a period of “post-disaster” reconstruction. During the Heisei era (1989-2019), it became almost normal for Japan to be frequently hit by devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters. How should Japanese society cope with this situation? It has not been easy for the country to transit from the postwar high-growth economic model to a post-disaster downsizing model.

As the old proverbs say, good medicine tastes bitter and people are apt to take the easy way out. Yet, in the past decade, Japanese society has finally found the postwar model ineffective and gradually accepted the post-disaster model. At the same time, efforts to revitalize regions, including the government’s Regional Revitalization Strategy, are no longer just policy buzzwords used just in political debate. There are signs that regions are giving substance to the strategy on their own with a variety of local initiatives of originality and ingenuity.

In June 2011, the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, an advisory panel set up by the government a month after the March 2011 quake, submitted a series of recommendations using “linkage” as a keyword. The council said, for example, “Linkage comes in many forms: people to people, community to community, company to [society].” It is true that such a transformation did not immediately manifest itself. However, five years later, when the Kumamoto Earthquake occurred, real “linkage” became conspicuous.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, a large number of volunteers with experience of supporting rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts of people and communities hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake converged on the Tohoku region. On top of private-sector volunteers, many municipalities elsewhere in the country dispatched civil servants to their counterparts stricken by the 2011 disaster to reinforce local administrative services. Likewise, the government temporarily filled some deputy mayoral positions with officials on loan from relevant ministries. In the wake of the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, the presence in disaster-stricken areas of veteran private-sector volunteers and officials on loan clearly became a new norm of Japanese society at last. Those disaster volunteers working in area after area have served as catalysts to unexpectedly make community-to-community linkage happen.

“Linkage” activities are spreading further in the country. In any disaster-stricken community, the immediate issue residents and municipal officials have to tackle is the restoration of livelihoods coupled with the reconstruction of housing. After the Kumamoto Earthquake, a mobile housing experiment was successfully carried out. Of late, there are moves in some areas to stockpile mobile homes in preparation for emergency use in the event of a disaster on the scale of a national crisis. The Ibaraki Prefecture town of Sakai and the Japan Mobile Architecture Association are spearheading the country’s mobile home support activities. Their initiative envisages using mobile homes as temporary public housing facilities in disaster-affected areas, while using them in non-crisis times as lodging and tourism and sports facilities.

Such use of mobile homes can bring about a new form of people-to-people linkage in a community. Moreover, it is likely to become a novel social model for connecting communities having a social system of stockpiling disaster supplies and disaster-stricken communities.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic separates people physically, the new situation in which people work remotely has led to the advent of a new form of linkage between communities. Mobile homes, too, are about to be used as a new opportunity for community-to-community linkage.

When thinking of “linkage,” I recalled critic and journalist Takashi Tachibana, who passed away on April 30 this year at the age of 80. The reason he was called “an intellectual giant” is because of his attitude to keep linking knowledge to knowledge. He kept tirelessly pushing forward to seek the truth without fearing taboos or catering to the presumed wishes of figures and organizations he covered, no matter how badly he was hated.

Tachibana was a prolific writer, covering former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1918-93), the Japanese Communist Party, brain death, outer space and more. At first glance, he seemed to be a versatile writer, yet one thing was common to each of his works — the pursuit of the truth. It was his style to learn from authorities on certain academic disciplines so intensively that he eventually became more knowledgeable than the authorities themselves and emerged as the greatest critic in those disciplines. What he sought was not to confront or divide the people concerned, but to finally link knowledge.

The important thing common to the pursuit of the truth and the efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is, first of all, to take action. Just keep pushing forward by following one’s curiosity. That is the sure way to break the status quo.

Takashi Mikuriya

Takashi Mikuriya is a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo specializing in Japanese political history and a fellow at the university’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. He served as acting chair of the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and acting chair of the Advisory Council on Easing the Burden of the Official Duties and Public Activities of His Majesty the Emperor.