PM Suga's digital mission

When Tokyo health authorities announced earlier this year that they had missed 111 coronavirus cases from a daily infection tally, they had an explanation: officials had missed some of the faxes, and made errors when entering numbers by hand.

Despite Japan's high-tech image, the country's bureaucrats still cling to antiquated methods of handling data, and when the public rushed to online services as a result of the coronavirus stay-at-home measures, those systems were found wanting.

Japan's new Prime Minister, Suga Yoshihide, has vowed to modernize the bureaucracy via a new agency to promote the digitization of administrative works.

Professor Murai Jun of Keio University, a researcher who worked on the development of online networks in Japan, says the coronavirus pandemic made people realize the importance of digitalizing information in government organizations:

"Over the past two decades, the Japanese government has successfully built digital infrastructure, such as mobile 5G networks or optical cables, but services couldn't develop in some essential areas, such as local administration, finance, education and healthcare. These fields all have one thing in common -- tight regulation."

Murai says the ongoing pandemic means that, initially, the Industry, Health, and Internal Affairs and Communications ministries are now required to eliminate so-called "data silos" to make information accessible in the same digital formats to help the fight against the coronavirus.

Digital Transformation Minister

Suga has tapped Hirai Takuya for the new post of Minister of Digital Transformation.

A former employee of Dentsu, Japan's largest advertising agency, he stands out from most of his Diet colleagues by wearing a smartwatch and carrying a tablet. He has long been an advocate of using IT policy to address Japan's social issues, such as the aging society and shrinking population.

Hirai says he wants to have the new agency set up by the Autumn of 2021, and intends to have someone from the private sector lead it.

"Our mission is to fully incorporate digital technologies into our society as fast as possible, and help people get used to them," Hirai said in his first speech as minister.

Hirai Takuya
Hirai Takuya will lead the digitalization of government.

Keio University's Murai says Hirai has a tricky balancing act ahead. "The authorities have a duty to create an environment for the private sector in which they can focus on their business without being bothered by administrative paperwork," he says.

"But it is also important for the government to move forward without leaving people behind who are not good at using online services. Achieving both goals will be a big task for the new government."