AustraliaJapan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial

Seminar paper

The lack of an archives tradition in Japan: issues surrounding the planned Centre for Modern Japan-Asia Relations, by Mr MUTA Shôhei

[Readers are advised that many changes relating to the content of this paper have occured since this seminar was presented at the Australian War Memorial in March 1999.]


On 8 March 1999, the Yomiuri Shinbun, one of Japan’s leading national dailies, carried the following title: “Enthusiasm quickly dies for planned history centre.” The article criticised the reluctance of relevant government agencies and ministries to assume responsibility for the planned Centre for Modern Asia-Japan Relations (CMJAR). Although the CMJAR project is headed by the Cabinet Councillors’ Office on External Affairs at the Prime Minister’s Office, there is apparently no government institution brave enough to face the problem of Japan’s controversial past.

In August 1994 the Prime Minister MURAYAMA Tomiichi , Japan’s first Socialist prime minister since 1948, had pledged the establishment of a centre for Japan-Asia relations, as a key part of the government projects marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War the following year. Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement, the Cabinet Councillors’ Office organised an advisory committee consisting of fifteen members from various fields. On 30 June 1995 the committee submitted a proposal to Prime Minister MURAYAMA, advising him to establish a Centre that, working from a neutral, unbiased perspective, would collect diverse historical materials relating to Japan-Asia relations, including official documents, private papers, films and audio-visual records. Following a year of foot-dragging within the government, the Japan Centre for International Exchange, a non-profit and non-government organisation engaged in various international exchange projects and policy research, was finally asked by the Cabinet Councillors’ Office to explore the possible establishment of a Centre for Modern Japan-Asia Relations. This spring JCIE completed its third study on this topic.

In the following essay I would like to summarise the JCIE study results and try to provide some insight into why the CMJAR project has proceeded so reluctantly. In contrast to the Yomiuri Shinbun’s suggestion that official nervousness over politically sensitive issues related to Japan’s pre-war and wartime historical record has been the primary retardant of progress on the CMJAR, I suggest that the lagging pace of the project is connected more profoundly with the prevailing culture of Japanese government record management itself.

1. Major causes of foot-dragging on the CMJAR project

Last summer Japanese people everywhere were astounded by the Japanese Defence Agency scandal, involving the procurement of defence computer systems and training jets. An investigation into the procurement scandal subsequently revealed that Senior Defence Agency personnel had systematically destroyed most of the important documents concerned, including receipts and invoices.

This incident demonstrated the absence, in Japan, of effective laws, regulations and authority governing central records management that might have prevented such a historically unjustifiable act from occurring. For unfortunately, the practices involved in the Defence Agency Scandal were not exceptional, but indicative of common practice throughout Japan’s modern history. In practice, the management of government records in Japan remains subject to the individual practices of those who actually create the records—a state of affairs known as the “system of irresponsibility,” because it allows officials the power to destroy documents at their own discretion, without ever being accountable to anyone. Under this “system of irresponsibility,” the Japanese people will never have the means to properly check their officials’ accountability.

Any bureaucracy or any organisation requires documents and records for decision-making, and throughout its existence, dating back to 1868, the modern Japanese government has been no exception. Some important questions need to be asked however, concerning how official documents are created, processed and preserved in Japan. In this context, I would like to introduce some of the results from the JCIE studies regarding the proposed Centre for Modern Japan-Asia Relations.

2. Summary of the JCIE Studies

The Japan Centre for International Exchange has so far conducted three research projects on the proposed Centre for Modern Asia-Japan Relations. The first study, conducted in 1996, was titled “Finding displaced documents and comparative studies of archives.” The second study, conducted in 1997, was titled “Functions, system and organisation of the planned centre.” The latest study, conducted in 1998, was titled “Estimation of government records related to modern Japan-Asia relations held in four major government records depositories.”

The first JCIE study revealed three main causes behind the displacement and/or loss of pre-war government documents in Japan, all of which are located in the period of profound upheaval just prior to and immediately after Japan’s surrender in World War II.

The first cause relates to the structural reorganisation of the Japanese government following the surrender of August 15, 1945. After the immediate post-surrender dismantling of the Japanese Army and Navy under Allied command, some documents held by the Ministries of Army and Navy were transferred to the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the purpose of repatriating former Japanese soldiers. During this period, many other ministries and government organisations were either dismantled or had their functions downsized due to the surrender. Some examples follow.

Former colonial offices and agencies

· Office of the Resident General in Taiwan (Taiwan Sôtoku Fu)
· Office of the Resident General in Korea (Kankoku Tokan Fu)
· South Seas Agency (Nanyôchô)
· Agency of Sakhalin (Karafutôchô)

After the surrender, these former colonial offices and agencies were all abolished, except for the Sakhalin Agency, as its responsibilities had already been transferred to the Home Ministry following the integration of Sakhalin into the Japanese homeland in 1943. When the Home Ministry was dismantled after the surrender, the remaining documents from the former Sakhalin Agency were sent to the Hokkaido municipal government.

Ministries and agencies

· Home Ministry (Naimushô)
· Greater East Asia Ministry (Daitôashô)
· Military Procurement Ministry (Gunjushô)
· Planning Board (Kikaku Iin)

After the war the Home Ministry, which had been one of Japan’s most powerful government ministries, along with the Army and Navy ministries, was divided into several departments, including Home Affairs, Construction and the National Police Agency. Other ministries and agencies created during the war, such as the Greater East Asia Ministry and the Planning Board, were abolished.

Government policy companies (Kokusaku Kaisha)

· The South Manchurian Railway Company (Minami Manshû Tetsudô)
· Bank of Korea (Chôsen Ginkô)
· Oriental Development Company (Tôyô Takushoku Kaisha) in Korea
· The Yokohama Specie Bank (Yokohama Shôkin Ginkô)

Government policy companies were established by the government after the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-95 to control the economies of newly acquired territories. After 1945, most of them were either dissolved or transformed into special or government-chartered companies. The lack of a central government document control system in Japan meant that many documents held by these government and government related organisations were either destroyed, for reasons which will be discussed later, or lost during the massive structural reorganisations which followed Japan’s unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945.

The second cause for the displacement and/or destruction of official records relates to the post-surrender confiscation of government documents by the Allied Forces and by the governments (or former suzerain governments) of regions where the Japanese military had operated, such as south-east Asia. The largest group of such documents ended up in the United States, the result of an extensive hunt for war-related documents by the Washington Document Centre (WDC) of the US Army in Washington and other US intelligence organisations. The total number of such documents confiscated by the WDC, including books, is said to have been about 470,000 items. The total amount of captured documents however, including those held by other (non-US) allied organisations, is unknown. It includes Japanese records captured on the battlefields and now held at the Australian War Memorial (AWM 82 collection).

Most of the remaining documents from former colonies or Japanese occupied areas are now kept at local archives or at national archives in their former suzerain, such as the Public Record Office in Britain and the Dutch National Archives. Since these archives do not employ archivists versed in the Japanese language, however, it is hard to know the precise quantity and contents of the records held at these locations.

The third cause of the displacement and/or destruction of official records relates to the deliberate destruction of official documents after the war. According to various accounts, an order to destroy official documents was issued by the Cabinet, although this order was never issued in writing, but was delivered personally by officials working for the Cabinet, even to the most local authorities. During the Tokyo War Crimes Trial many witnesses stated that “military” documents and records were incinerated even before the official surrender. Burning of these documents apparently continued for several days. The JCIE study results suggest that although original documents held by the Ministries of Army and Navy were destroyed in great numbers, a substantial quantity of these original documents, as well as some copies of highly classified documents, survived. Most of them were hidden by former General Staff Officers from the Army and Navy for future use, in particular for writing official accounts of the war. Most known surviving Army and Navy documents are now stored at the Library of the History Department, National Institute for Defence Studies, and are open to the public. However, some Navy documents are also kept by the Shiryô Chôsakai (Historical Records Research Institute), a foundation that was created by former navy general staff officers in 1946 to protect the collection of the former Naval Academy’s library. While this collection consists mostly of books and journals, it also contains some highly classified documents kept and hidden by the general staff officers after the surrender - including the Dai Kai Rei (Imperial Orders to the Navy), and some sentô shôhô (detailed battle reports). The records held by the Shiryô Chôsakai were subsequently used by former officers to write an official naval history, but they were not transferred to the Library of the National Institute for Defence Studies, as was the case with the remaining former army records.

To sum up then, although we will probably never know the true extent of the post-war dispersal and destruction of official records, there is clearly a substantial quantity of these records remaining in Japan and abroad. If these documents could be reassembled and organised following their original structure they could provide important new insights into Japan’s past; but here too, some substantial obstacles to this possibility remain. As I will show in the section that follows, in the case of materials currently held in Japan these obstacles concern not only the disparate locations and accessibility of the documents, but the bureaucratic culture that controls them.

3. Locating official documents remaining in Japan

Most of the remaining government official documents and records related to Japan-Asia relations are stored at the following government institutions.

· The National Archives (Kokuritsu Kôbunshôkan)
· The Diplomatic Record Office Attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô Gaikô Shiryôkan)
· The Library of the National Institute for Defence Studies History Department (Bôeichô Senshishitsu Toshokan)
· The National Diet Library Constitutional Records Department for Private Papers (Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan Kensei Shiryôshitsu)
· The Imperial Household Agency Archives and Mausoleum Department (Kunaichô Shoryôbu)

JCIE studies have also found that there are still many documents remaining in various ministerial storage facilities. There has been little attempt, however, to explore the content and status of these facilities, mostly due to a general lack of will and/or means at these ministries. A significant number of Japanese officials are apprehensive of the embarrassment that could arise from more public knowledge of these documents, especially if they were to reveal unpleasant facts about Japan’s wartime record—even though such facts would not reflect upon the current service of these officials. A case in point is the ongoing discussion of documents related to the so-called “comfort women” (Jûgun Ianfu) [1], which remains a sensitive historical issue in contemporary Japanese society.

There are, moreover, significant numbers of official documents still remaining in private possession, due to the lack of strict regulations and rules for the disposal of official documents. Some of these documents were deliberately appropriated and hidden at the end of the war by government officials—for example, documents relating to the wartime service records of former military officers. Others were taken out of the desire to preserve important documents for posterity, against the intentions of the Cabinet Destruction Order. Finally, some documents were taken simply because government officials regarded them as their own personal property.

It should also be noted here that Japanese record-keeping is traditionally done by binding related documents in book form, with the resulting books known as bosatsu. Because it was so unlike the filing system used in most Western archives, this practice created some confusion in handling Japanese official documents confiscated by the WDC. When the US Government decided to return these confiscated documents to Japan in the 1950s , some bosatsu were actually sent to the Library of Congress instead, as books.

4. Three major depositories of prewar official documents in Japan

Among the five major depositories of prewar official documents mentioned above, the Imperial Household Agency Archives and Mausoleum Department are not open to the public. The National Diet Library’s Constitutional Records Department for Private Papers keeps important private papers, letters, and diaries of government officials. The Department’s collections are often quite crucial to understanding the flow of historical events, because of the scarcity of relevant official documents; but while the majority of these documents are accessible to the public, they are not regarded as official documents. Consequently, in this report I will touch only on the three remaining depositories mentioned: the National Archives, the Diplomatic Record Office, and the NIDS History Department Library.

The National Archives

It might come as a surprise to some Western historians to learn that the Japan National Archives were only established in 1971. Prior to this, there was no central government record depository in Japan. The National Archives is now the central preserver of historically important official records, such as records kept by the Dajôkan (Grand Council of State) which, before the adoption of the cabinet system in 1885, was the central administrative organ of the Japanese state, with combined powers to devise and execute policies. The Archives’ collection also includes records sent to the pre-war cabinet by various ministries and agencies after the adoption of the cabinet system; but the Archives has little real power to force other government ministries and agencies to transfer their documents, as is commonly done in the West. As a result, records and documents from other government ministries and agencies held at the National Archives are rather limited.

The Archives’ total holdings amount to 442,309 bosatsu, of an average thickness of 4 cm. Pre-war records amount to about 45,000 bosatsu, plus several thousand loose items. In March 1999 the Archives opened a website that includes a search engine for the holdings, although this is available only in Japanese. General information on the Archives’ holdings, however, can also be found on the English version of the homepage at

The Diplomatic Record Office attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Diplomatic Record Office keeps its documents in relatively organised order. Moreover, because the office has applied the internationally-practised 30-year rule on public access to documents, pre-war records are, in principle, readily accessible, and there is also a two-volume catalogue of pre-war diplomatic records covering the period from 1868 to 1945. General information is available from the Diplomatic Record Office’s English website at

The Library of the History Department, National Institute for Defence Studies

The Library, which is not formally an archival institute, received some confiscated Army and Navy documents from the US government in 1958. Though the Library is open to the public, it was originally established to serve the History Department of the National Institute of Defence Studies, where many former military officers worked, and this is still its primary function. The Library has the largest collection of former Army and Navy documents and records. Although it has been said that most military documents were destroyed towards the end of the war, there are still many highly classified documents in existence, including the Tairiku Mei (Imperial Orders to the Army) and the Dai Kai Rei (Imperial Orders to the Navy), which document the orders issued directly by the Emperor to the Army and the Navy. There are also some sentô shôhô (detailed battle reports), as well as the Rikugun Himitsu Nikki (Confidential Army Staff Diaries).

The Library’s main collections include:

· the Army’s Dainikki Rui (documents bound for permanent preservation by the Ministry of Army, under the title Dainikki, or “Great Diary”): 7688 bosatsu;
· the Navy’s Kobunbiko Rui (documents bound for permanent preservation by the Ministry of Navy, under the title “Old Archives”): 12694 bosatsu;
· about 50,000 items of Army and Navy-related documents. Among these so-called kankei shiryo, or “related documents,” there are some highly classified documents, such as the above-mentioned Tairiku Mei and sentô shôhô. Most of them were concealed by former Army and Navy General Staff Officers at the end of the war, and later “donated” to the NIDS Library.

5. Lack of a document management and archives tradition in Japan

Going through all the catalogues at the National Archives, one notices that up until the adoption of a Cabinet political system in 1885, the records kept by the Grand Council of State (Dajôkan) provide a good reflection of historical events. After 1885, however, it becomes very difficult to perceive Japanese historical events accurately simply by referring to documents held at the National Archives. Following the adoption of the Cabinet system, the documents sent to the Cabinet by the various ministries and agencies became very limited in both number and category, and they include little in the way of budget, appointment and salary documents. It is evident from the collection that government ministries and agencies rarely sent their administrative records to the Cabinet.

For Army and Navy records, it is a very strenuous task to find records concerning a specific event or issue unless one is familiar with the structure and organisation of the Army and Navy and the broad historical background of the event or issue in question. Even locating a correct sentô shôhô (detailed battle report), for example, which is usually edited in a standard form, is difficult unless one knows exactly the name of the unit which fought in a specific battle. This has to do with the fact that, until quite recently, military history was not a very publicly acceptable academic discipline in Japan; those engaged in such study tended to be former military officers writing their war history or memoirs. It is only quite recently that military history has been taken seriously as an academic subject, and that researchers with no special military background have started using the records. Prior to this development there was not much incentive for libraries and archives to elaborate and improve their catalogue system to aid users from a non-military background.

Even at the Diplomatic Record Office, where the records are kept in a relatively organised way, it is hard to locate documents because of changes in the cataloguing system. The DRO collection contains approximately 48,000 files, of which 22,000 are records from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishô (1812-1926) periods [2]. These are classified into eight categories, such as political affairs, treaties, commerce, etc. Records from the Shôwa period (1926-1989) number 26,000 files, classified into 16 categories instead of eight. Moreover, each document is further reassembled according to relevant events or subjects in its content. Records are not filed according to the principle of provenance, standard practice for modern archives in the West.

At this point, I suggest, two essential questions should be asked concerning the remaining documents at these government archives. First, why don’t the official documents at the National Archive clearly reflect the Japanese past? Secondly, why are official documents at these archives are so difficult to locate and identify?

The main answer to these questions is simply that that there has been no universal management of government records throughout Japan’s modern history. In other words, there is almost no formal tradition of archival practice in modern Japan. It was as late as 1986 that, for the first time in Japanese history, the government passed the Public Archives Law, recognising public records as the “people’s common property.” Another clue to this lack of tradition is the fact that even today, there is no officially recognised tertiary qualification for archivists in Japan. The archivist has never really been a recognised profession in modern Japan - and the reasons for this, I suggest, are deeply rooted in the creation of the modern Japanese government in 1885.

Bureaucrats are servants of the Emperor, not of the people”

The first key to understanding Japan’s contemporary archival problems is to appreciate the system of bureaucratic accountability in pre-war Japan: to whom were bureaucrats responsible? Following the Meiji Restoration, the main priority of Meiji leaders was to unite Japan in the wake of decades of civil war, and to make the country “rich and strong” (fukoku kyôhei) against the threat of Western military expansion in the East. In order to achieve these aims, especially that of national unity, the Meiji leaders desperately needed a symbol by which the Japanese people could identify themselves as a nation. To this end they redefined Japan’s imperial institution, which had played only a minor political role under the Tokugawa Shôgunate for the previous 250 years. Promulgated in 1889, the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Meiji Constitution) invested the emperor as the “sacred and inviolable” Supreme Power of the Japanese nation, who commanded the armed forces and determined the organisation of the civil and military administration. According to Articles 4 and 55 of the Constitution, however, the emperor’s supreme power was to be restrained by the advice and consent of his cabinet ministers. In short, ministers of the modern Japanese state were imperial bureaucrats (kanri), who were responsible to the emperor alone, not civil servants (kôboku) responsible to the Japanese people. Officials in Japan’s prewar government never felt that they had to be directly accountable to the people, who were, after all, mere subjects (shinmin) of the emperor. As officials of the emperor, they kept written records only for their own future reference—for institutional, rather than public, memory, as it were. Because each ministry was directly responsible to the emperor, not to the Cabinet, there was no effective central control of the official records created by each ministry. This autonomy remains a characteristic of government ministries in Japan even today, and it hinders any attempt to coordinate policies among ministries, especially when their respective interests come into conflict. The current state of affairs surrounding the planned Centre for Modern Japan-Asia Relations, whose success will depend upon cooperation between various government archival sources, is a good example of this problem.

The lack of an archives tradition

The Meiji government was eager to introduce Western bureaucratic institutions to Japan in order to modernise or Westernise Japanese society—and we should note here that the words “modernisation” and “Westernisation” were used almost interchangeably by Meiji leaders. Although there is some evidence that the government even translated the archival laws and regulations of France and Prussia, it never attempted to adopt an archival system before the end of the Second World War. It was only after the war, when historians realised that many historically valuable documents were likely to be lost in the post-war turmoil, that many of them urged the government to establish a national depository for the endangered records. It should be noted, however, that there was little awareness among the people who initiated the movement for the preservation of historically important records, that an archives is also the final custodian of non-current official records on behalf of the sovereign people.

Why was the prewar government reluctant to introduce a proper archives system into Japan? And why did it take so long, even after the war, to establish the National Archives? Although there has been no comprehensive study on this subject, I would like to introduce here one common hypothesis, which has evolved out of the JCIE research work conducted for the planned Centre for Modern Japan-Asia Relations.

European history tells us that modern archives were established in France after the French Revolution in order to preserve the records created by the ancien regime. Their major objective was to give the new sovereign, the French people, the power both to investigate and remember what the former royal regime had inflicted upon them. In other words, modern archival systems evolved as a way of safeguarding the authority of the people, by providing them with written records of what their government did. Accordingly, throughout the modern era, archives in France and other democratic countries have evolved as an important institution, not only for preserving the records of the past, but also for the preservation of democracy and good governance. By the time the Meiji government leaders became aware of these Western archives in the late 19th century, the democratic principle of archival systems, the guarantee of general public access to official records, was already well established.

Before the adoption of the cabinet system in Japan, the Dajôkan, or Grand Council of State, had maintained a historiography section which collected official records for the compilation of an official history. When the cabinet system was adopted in 1885, however, this records management system was revised. The expansion of Japan’s government after the Meiji Restoration created something of a records overflow, with the result that new records management practices tended to place more emphasis on the selection and destruction of written records than their preservation. The National Archives collections clearly reflect this change in records management during the later part of the 1880s.

There is, however, another and more profound reason for the absence of a centrally managed government records system in Japan. The autonomous status of government institutions in Japan, even after the war, means that record-keeping has been and still is, in practice, done by the various ministries and agencies which create the records. As mentioned previously, the National Archives was established only in 1971 as an institution attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, and it still has little real power to compel other ministries and agencies to transfer their non-current records to the National Archives. Though Japan’s National Diet passed the Public Archives Law in 1986 to reinforce the works of the National Archives and other archives, Japanese bureaucrats strongly resisted the law because it implied that the National Archives could become a central custodian of non-current records. The bureaucrats were well aware that unimpeded access to their past actions would significantly diminish their extraordinarily powerful grip on national governance. In truth, Japanese bureaucrats have never really been convinced by the notion that sovereignty rests with the people - rather, their attitude tends to reflect the classical Japanese maxim that “People must be led to rely on the ruler; they cannot be led to understand.” According to the Archives 1997 annual report, out of the total collection of 690,000 bosatsu of non-current records held, about 3.5 per cent comes from fourteen ministries and agencies (out of 22 in the central government), and 28.9 per cent from the Prime Minister’s Office. It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that the National Archives is often referred to in Japan as the “Prime Minister’s Office Archives.”

In practice, the National Archives has power only to request the cooperation of directors and section chiefs in charge of record management in each government ministry and agency. Even in each respective ministry, sections which handle record management are not necessarily the custodians of non-current records, as records are often kept by the sections which created the records. There is thus no centralised record keeping system, even in the ministries.

To sum up then, the absence of an archival tradition is the main cause of the displacement and dispersal of both pre-war and current official documents. Furthermore, this absence itself is deeply embedded in the modern government system established by the Meiji leaders, which categorically denied the people’s right to know about what the emperor’s government was doing and had done. In this respect, the mindset of government officials remains almost unchanged today, despite the democratisation of Japanese governance after the war.

The passing the Freedom of Information Law in the National Diet on 7 May 1999 however, may help change the bureaucrats’ minds and attitudes. Previously, Japanese officials felt that they had every right to destroy or hide documents at their own discretion, as was demonstrated in the Defence Agency Procurement Scandal. Now, for the first time in Japanese history, the new law states unequivocally that official government records are the sovereign property of the Japanese people. While it yet remains to be seen how powerful the new law will prove in opening up Japan’s archival holdings to greater public scrutiny, it is surely a step in the right direction.

The author

MUTA Shôhei is Senior Program Officer in charge of Information and Resources at the Japan Centre for International Exchange. Mr MUTA has written extensively on document management and research policy issues, particularly those concerning joint historical research initiatives between Japan and other countries. In March 1999, he was a Visiting Research Fellow to the Australia-Japan Research Project, where he presented a seminar based on this essay.

Editor’s Notes

[1] The “comfort women” are women (mostly from China and south-east Asia) who were formerly recruited by the Japanese Army during World War II to serve in military brothels at various locations within Japan’s wartime territories. Many of the women were recruited forcibly, and some of them who survive today continue to lobby the Japanese government for reparation.

[2] Since 1868, periods in Japanese history have corresponded with the reigns of emperors. The Taishô period was followed by the Shôwa period, the reign of Japan’s best-known emperor HIROHITO. HIROHITO died in 1989 and was succeeded by his son AKIHITO, whose current reign (1989--) is known as the Heisei period.

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