Etsuko Watanabe

Etsuko Watanabe

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Etsuko Watanabe is the Chief of International Liasion Team at the National Archives of Japan.

National Archives of Japan (NAJ) is a government organisation which serves to ensure the proper preservation of, and provision of access to, public records with historical/evidential value. Over two decades have passed since archivists all over the world started to tackle issues brought about by ever-evolving digital technologies; however, the governments’ records in Japan have been preserved in physical (mainly paper-based) formats as original records, even though they were digitally generated. As of March 2020, the digital records account for only 0.1 % of our entire holdings (1.54 million volumes). In addition, the transfer of digital records created by governmental bodies started in 2011, and their total amount still remains at 1,759 volumes.

Along with the governments’ policies, digital records acquired by the NAJ are, in principle, converted to long-term preservation formats in order to ensure their readability. They were then preserved in the system for transfer, preservation and use, which is called the “Electronic Records Archives of Japan (ERAJ).” To ensure the preservation of digital records, we undertake the following processes: (a) creating metadata, (b) ensuring security, (c) integrity checks of digital files, and (d) carrying out proper backups. Long-term preservation formats for acquired records to be converted are regulated as PDF/A-1 (ISO19005-1) and JPEG 2000 (ISO/IEC15444) depending on their file format. In addition, it is specified that acquired records should be preserved in their original formats when they are unable to be converted, or need to be preserved in their original form. So far, the file formats of Microsoft Word and PDF are often seen among these acquired records.

The amount of born digital records acquired by the NAJ is on the increase lately. The policies regarding the electronic management of administrative documents by the Government, has reached a significant turning point since 2018; thus it is quite possible that the born digital records transferred from government bodies will increase more rapidly. The "Digital Government Action Plan" prepared in 2018, sets the goal of achieving 100% digitalization of administrative services (in other words, the ability to complete in digital format an entire process from application to probation, approval, and notification), and the concrete actions plan to achieve that goal have now been disclosed. In addition, in May 2019, the so-called "Digital Procedure Act" was enacted, which introduced amendments to related laws and regulations that are necessary to permit the execution of administrative procedures online.

Moreover, a series of issues has surfaced in recent years concerning public records management, such as tampering with records after authorization. The situation has had a negative impact on trust in the Government. The Government considered this issue seriously and in July 2018 established countermeasures to avoid any recurrence, where improvements in the electronic management of administrative documents were set as an important pillar. Specifically, it was set forth that schemes would be considered to permit locating electronic administrative documents, as well as the management of such documents in a fully electronic format, including their creation, preservation and disposal. In March 2019, the "Basic Guideline Concerning the Electronic Management of Administrative Documents" was established as a Prime Ministerial Decision. Concerning the creation and obtaining of administrative documents, the basic principle is to be able to perform systematic management, based on electronic media as the original/master copy and, in order to build a framework for that, the Government as a whole aims at introducing a fully-fledged electronic management system by 2026.

This government’s response towards ‘digitalising’ the records management process means that the records transferred to the National Archives will finally start shifting from paper-based to born digital format in earnest. It is also expected that the importance of digital preservation will garner higher attention in Japan ever than before. To help this movement, the NAJ cooperated with the Japanese translation project of the DPC Rapid Assessment Model (DPC RAM) which enables organisations to assess their capabilities regarding digital preservation. We are hoping that the DPC RAM becomes popular in Japan and that more organisations make the best use of the model, so that they can proceed with their digital preservation activities in a certain way. 

From now on, the NAJ will further strive to make sure of the transfer and preservation of born digital records. As the UK National Archives shows, the digital preservation workflow is not just (1) Selection and Transfer, (2) Ingest, (3) Preservation, but also, (4) “Access” -- as we consider that digital preservation can be achieved not only by ensuring the organisational capability, but also by properly raising awareness regarding the importance of digital preservation, as well as making digital content more available and accessible.

To strengthen this, the NAJ runs two "Digital Archives" (Internet services which provide catalogue information and digitised imagery of our holdings. Hereinafter referred to as "DA") so that we can ensure the open access to our holdings by users inside and outside of Japan. One of the DAs is the National Archives of Japan Digital Archive. As at present, further to the entire catalogue information of our holdings, digitised images account for approximately 323,000 of the volumes that are available online, which correspond to approximately 21% of all historical public records preserved by the NAJ. For the previous renewal that took place in 2016, we enabled the support of devices such as tablets, improved a viewer for large-sized images and implemented functions such as image download and SNS sharing. Furthermore, towards the next renewal in 2021, we are striving to develop and design a system to further improve accessibility, taking into account technological trends, as well as changes in society related to the recommended use of open data.

Another DA refers to the Japan Centre for Asian Historical Records, which was set up as a subsidiary institution of the NAJ in 2001, which provides information and digital images online for free, related to Asian historical public records belong to the NAJ, the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and the National Institute for Defence Studies of the Ministry of Defence of Japan. As of March 2020, approximately 31.68 million images are available for use. This is one of the important endeavours for Japan to utilise the historical records, which document the relations between Japan and neighbouring Asian countries in modern history, to researchers and users from inside and outside of country, so that we can promote mutual understanding between those countries and Japan.

It is obvious perhaps, but these promotional activities are implemented along with our extensive digitisation project over our holdings. Digitising physical records enables us to not only promote the use of our holdings, but also to mitigate the risks of unnecessary damage and stains of original records. NAJ adopts the JPEG 2000 format for the data created by digitisation, which is able and available to handle high compression and high-resolution image data. The digital images are kept as lossless compression image data, and the backups of the digitised images are saved to optical discs (blue ray discs) in accordance with the Japanese industrial standard for document management and the long-term preservation of electronic imaging documents in optical discs (JIS Z6017:2013).

In the current context, where the rapidly advancing implementation of electronic public records management constitutes a large national project in Japan, the NAJ considers the need to be actively involved in providing expertise as specialists. At the same time, in addition to collecting diverse materials and ensuring their appropriate preservation, we are required to properly respond to changes in social demands, such as user needs concerning what is expected from an archival institution; where our response to the expectations expressed by users, as well as the general public, is to continuously improve our provision of long-term and stable access to records.

On the other hand, what remains unchanged by the development of digital technologies behind the management of records and information are the “people”, who use them and the “archivists” who manage them. Henceforth, in order to consider how to preserve and make full use of the huge and diversified records created by digital technologies, we archivists, as human beings, must review and reconsider one by one the very concepts of the tasks themselves.

We are also promoting plans to construct a new building for the NAJ, scheduled to be completed in 2026. The NAJ will embark on a substantial functional improvement and increase in personnel to cope with that event. By carrying out the endeavours presented in this blogpost, we will continue in our efforts to devise the best form of archives to cope with the ever-changing times.

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