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Faxes and floppy disks: Japan’s bureaucracy needs an upgrade

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TOKYO — For a country where emoji were invented, Japan’s bureaucracy remains steadfastly analog.

Official documents are often submitted via fax (a machine that sends messages over the phone line) or floppy disk (a precursor to the USB drive). In fact, thousands of government regulations insist on the use of such 20th-century stalwarts.

The Japanese government wants to make a technological upgrade and move the 1,741 local municipalities and the central government systems into a government cloud platform. But it’s a massive undertaking. Taro Kono, Japan’s new digital minister who began the role in August, is tasked with the daunting effort and getting bureaucrats to change their deeply set ways.

“If it’s something from the 20th century, maybe we should leave it in the 20th century and do something new,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “When automobiles came in and they wanted to pave the road, and those people with horse carriages opposed paving the road, you just still had to do it anyway. Same thing.”

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Because of the persistent belief among government officials that paper-based systems are more secure than digital communication, Japan has been resistant to moving to a more efficient, electronic system.

The limitations of this approach became woefully clear during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when medical professionals were required to submit handwritten reports about each new infection and fax them to the public health office. It overwhelmed doctors and public health offices with paperwork and created delays in updating the public about new cases and sending pandemic subsidies to businesses.

It’s not just government services. Bank transactions and housing contracts often require the use of hanko, a personal seal, in lieu of signatures.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and home to humanoid robots, this year ranked a record low in an annual measure of global digital competitiveness by the International Institute for Management Development, a leading business school in Switzerland. Japan ranked 29th out of 63 economies measured by knowledge, technology and “future readiness,” lagging behind other Asian economies. In four of the categories, Japan came dead last.

Last year, Japan established a new Digital Agency to digitize the bureaucracy and the Japanese society. The agency had a slow start, faced with resistance from local governments and even a technical glitch with the rollout of its website.

In August, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appointed Kono as the new digital minister to carry out the country’s digital overhaul. Kono previously was Japan’s foreign minister, administrative reform minister and a 2021 candidate for prime minister.

A Twitter-savvy Japanese politician speaking impeccable English, Kono ruffled feathers in 2021 as administrative reform minister when he pushed to get rid of the bureaucracy’s dependence on fax machines. Now as digital minister, Kono has been as staple figure on television shows, at public events and on Twitter to more than 2 million followers, hailing the efficiencies of going digital.

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Among Kono’s priorities is integrating Japan’s My Number system, which is similar to the American Social Security card. The system launched in 2016 so that Japanese residents can connect their health insurance, bank accounts and other services, including purchasing alcohol. It requires people to obtain the physical card, but sign-ups have been slow because residents are worried about security concerns and find the registration process a hassle.

Another is eliminating 9,000 government regulations that require the use of outdated technology, including fax machines, and discourage remote work in government offices. It is difficult for government employees to work remotely because of rules and practices that require them to work in person. Kono wants these phased out by 2025.

A 2020 survey of 480 government employees by a Japanese consulting firm that supports remote work found that during covid, 86 percent of exchanges with politicians were done by fax and 80 percent of briefings to politicians were done in person.

The Digital Agency employs fewer than 700 full-time workers to serve a population of more than 125 million, 30 percent of whom are over 65 years old. The goal is communicating the practical benefits of using technology to people who are most resistant to it, said Kono.

“It’s not like a big ideology. It’s practical application,” he said.

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The Japanese government’s salaries can’t compete with the high-paying engineering jobs in private companies, so the agency offers a revolving-door model for private-sector employees to work part-time two days a week. To prevent brain drain, employees from local governments and other central government ministries also can work stints at the Digital Agency, which Kono compared to a “missionary system.”

The Digital Agency is also looking to make the government’s complex procurement process for contracts more accessible for start-ups that could introduce new technologies and ideas to the way current work is done.

“When you renew your driver’s license, you have to go to the police station to watch a half-an-hour video. But why do you have to show up? Why can’t you do that online?” Kono said. The same concept applies to taking necessary government exams, he said, and start-ups offering remote-testing technology have begun bidding for government contracts under the regulatory overhaul.

Still, there is a long way to go.

Earlier this year, a government ministry asked the public to submit their thoughts about the future of metaverse platforms and challenges that prevent people from accessing them. Yet the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication’s effort to gather feedback on the emerging technology was extremely analog: People were required to write their ideas into an Excel spreadsheet, then email the spreadsheet as a file attachment, adding layers of hurdles in the submission process.

The feedback mechanism went viral on Twitter, drawing ridicule from Japanese residents. Kono retweeted the viral post, adding his own comment: “We will use a form [online] next time.”

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