TOKYO – The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the deficiencies in digitization in Japan and given a push for the country to launch a strategy outlined 20 years ago and which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has made a pillar of his government.
Japan has robust telecommunication systems compared to other countries, but the scarce digitization of administrative online services, decentralization and customs such as asking residents to come to the town hall to request services and benefits have made it lag behind.
Of the more than 55,000 administrative procedures of Japan’s government, fewer than 10 percent can be completed entirely online, according to data from the Japan Research Institute. This is one of the reasons the country was ranked 14th in the biennial United Nations E-Government survey 2020 Survey, four behind 2018.
This is added to the dependence in many public offices of the fax in their communications and the use of stamps (“hanko”) required in many procedures to sign documents.
The electronic deficiencies of the public administration were evident when hundreds of municipalities suspended the online applications for a state subsidy for COVID-19 due to failures in their systems. This also forced them to manually compare the data of the applications with those of the municipal register.
The lack of a unified system caused a telematic “communication blackout” between ministries and state agencies, and many health centers had to fax handwritten information on COVID-19 patients to the government, including those in Tokyo.
Despite the fact that Japan undertook its digital transformation almost two decades ago, with its “e-Japan strategy” of January 2001, it wanted to “make Japan the most advanced nation in IT (information technology) in the world in five years.” It also wanted to achieve “an electronic government,” the pandemic has exposed the delay in its implementation.
To remedy this, and when he had only been in charge of the government for two weeks, Suga created an office in charge of technological reform and announced the establishment by 2021 of a digital agency.
Its goals include abandoning the use of the “hanko” stamps and adopting a nationally standardized computing infrastructure by 2025.
Although analysts see the computer standardization of central government agencies in that period as something feasible, the implementation of national infrastructure is more complex.
There are currently 1,741 local governments in Japan and they all use different computer systems, economist Kaori Iwasaki, from the Japan Research Institute, told EFE. She considers standardization to be “extremely difficult to achieve.”
On the one hand, not all governments have the financial or personnel resources necessary for change and, on the other, the central administration cannot force them to adopt it.
Many internal procedures are still “analogical” and it is foreseeable that the project will encounter resistance from government personnel themselves, who are fearful of change. It is not uncommon, for example, that official agencies ask journalists to anticipate their attendance at press conferences by fax.
“I think it is very important to integrate computer systems, but doing it in such a short period is not a good idea, because if we hurry, I am sure that there will be many defects that we will have to correct later,” says Iwasaki, who considers at least a decade as the most suitable setting.
In addition to optimizing efficiency, digitization could save the public coffers about 2 trillion yen ($19.1 billion), according to estimates by the Japan Association of New Economy.
The prime minister’s digitizing push also affects the “hanko,” a peculiar and widespread stamp system used as a personal signature that involves an industry with significant political influence that has hindered teleworking.
The Government wants to eliminate it in 90 percent of administrative processes and encourage its abolition in the private sector.
The National Police Agency has said it will stop requiring it in its resident procedures in 2021 and the Justice Ministry is studying abolishing it in marriage and divorce certificates.
Although nuptials can be processed online since 2004, it requires an electronic certification system that was never implemented.
To adopt it, the government wants to rely on special identification cards introduced in 2015, which until September had been issued to 19.4 percent of the population. The Administration wants to get close to 100 percent by 2022.
This could be helped by the integration in 2021 of the system with the public health insurance card or driver’s license, often the only identity document with a photograph.