Japan wants to get started with a digital agency

Every beginning is difficult, also for the new digital agency, which is supposed to lead Japan’s entire administration from an analogue paradise to the online world: When the agency went online on September 1st, the website collapsed first. The office quickly apologized on Twitter that the website was in “unstable operation”. “Please wait a little.”

But the agency has been in a hurry ever since. Even when it was founded, it had 600 employees, around a fifth experts from the private sector. And they should act agile, said Japan’s new digital minister, Karen Makishimaafter taking office at the beginning of October. The digital agency wants “to be an organization like a start-up, in which people from the public and private sector with many ideas, experiences and high ambitions come together to create new values,” she wrote in her inaugural message.

Japan has always tried everything possible with electronics – and often the impossible. Every Thursday our author Martin Kölling reports here on the latest trends from Tokyo.

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The greatest value or the challenge is to catch up with Japan’s huge backlog in digitization of the administration. Nowhere is there a greater gap between paper form and reality than with the world market leader in factory networking. In international comparative studies on eGovernment, Japan is often in the top global group thanks to its fast internet connection, high cell phone penetration and ambitious government plans.

But in the ranking for the digital competitiveness of Switzerland Institute for Management Development (IMD) In 2020, the country was even nine places behind Germany in 27th place. It looks even worse in day-to-day work with the authorities. According to the OECD Digital Economy Outlook, only 5.4 percent of citizens actually used digital government services before the pandemic. That is by far the worst value in the OECD, an organization of the old industrial nations.

The problem had been known for a long time and repeatedly invited the media to comment on the Japanese love for fax machines. Even in top universities there are still faculties that only give a fax number and no e-mail address for written communication on their contact page. But it was only with the corona pandemic that adherence to analog processes became acutely a national problem.

Japan’s former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga therefore named the digitization of administration and the economy and the establishment of a digital agency as one of his most important reforms to reform society and the economy after taking office in September 2020. The new office is intended to centralize and control the government’s IT work on the one hand, and to encourage the 1741 local governments, which have all set up their own IT systems, to work together on the other.

However, the beginning was made easy for the authorities. Because the then Minister for Administrative Reform, Taro Kono, has already attacked the biggest obstacle to the digitization of administrative processes in offices and companies: the Hanko, the name stamp.

Until now, many documents had to be stamped by hand by various clerks and applicants with their personal or business seal. At the beginning of the pandemic telework boom, this meant that many employees had to go to their offices to stamp. According to the government, the Hanko is now no longer required for 99 percent of applications for office.

In addition to the technology transfer, the new authority is also responsible for injecting a new way of thinking into the authorities. After all, the new pace is exemplary. “The positive thing is that this happens very quickly,” says Pierre Gaulis, founder and head of the IT consultant Cream, who supports companies in Japan with the implementation of digital transformation. In his opinion, the government is really trying to bring bureaucracy and the private sector together to accelerate digitization.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

The big question, however, remains how powerful the new authority can be. In order to break the enormous resistance, the former head of government Suga had entrusted Taro Kono, one of the most experienced and most assertive politicians in the country, with the reform of the administration.

Suga’s new successor, Fumio Kishida, on the other hand, is now relying on a novice for ministerial posts in the struggle with the bureaucracy: 44-year-old Karen Makishima occupies her first ministerial office in the digital agency. She now has the chance to make a name for herself.


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