Japan Digital Agency to Address Covid-19 Woes

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Saga in December 2020, just days following the announcement of his new digital agency (Image from Shutterstock).

Across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic has sent national governments scrambling to keep its economies and essential services operational—and few have encountered more difficulties than Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Throughout 2020, the Suga administration’s lack of digital infrastructure exacerbated delays in pandemic relief and fueled waves of infections and international criticism. Japan’s newly-formed National Digital Agency, unveiled in September 2020, is Japan’s attempt to turn the tide. The agency marks Suga’s explicit commitment to the digitization of governmental operations; in the pandemic era, the new agency is an attempt to save face and save lives. 

Suga’s latest commitments seek to overcome the Japanese government’s decades-long struggles to adopt digitized governmental operations and services. In 1997, Japan’s central government district of Kasumigaseki suffered a disastrous launch of its inter-agency telecommunications network: the project proved a logistical nightmare after ministries employed different computational systems and struggled to standardize communications. Japan again found little luck in 2001, when then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto sought to unify the nation’s information technology (IT) strategy by reorganizing the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT). Hashimoto’s efforts ground to a halt following a series of political clashes between the MITI and MPT. The ensuing two decades have done little to resolve similar political qualms: to this day, governmental control over the nation’s IT strategy remains partitioned between three ministries that refuse to standardize agency operations. Even before Covid-19, inefficiency abounded.

This political discordance within the Japanese government crippled national digitization strategies while concurrent efforts flourished elsewhere in Asia. At the onset of the pandemic, lagging digital government services left Japan struggling as the digital infrastructure of Taiwan and South Korea greatly expedited their pandemic response. As Taiwan launched a network of mobile sites to ensure the equitable distribution of face coverings, Japanese efforts were hampered by the overwhelming proportion of administrative, educational, and medical transactions conducted on paper. As South Korea executed contact tracing based on pre-existing cell phone tracking data, Japan’s attempts at a similar identification initiative—the government-sponsored “My Number Card” national ID program—was met with a meager public buy-in of less than 20%. Public outrage grew as the Japanese suffered economic fallout, ill-managed quarantines, and delayed financial relief packages while other Asian countries flattened the curve.

Even by September 2020, the Japanese Research Institute reported that just 12% of the nation’s administrative transactions occurred online. On September 17, 2020, Suga announced the formation of a digital agency aimed to compensate for its lagging digitization, ordering IT experts and Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai to expedite preparations and administrative appointments. Suga’s announcement outlined a collaborative enterprise between bureaucrats and the private sector—an agency aimed at “the next generation” in both organization and mission. By positioning the project as a prime project of his administration, Suga articulated the Japanese government’s renewed commitment to the digital modernization in which it has long been lacking. 

So far, Hirai has delivered. On December 13, 2020, Hirai announced the hiring of more than 500 engineers and technology experts as a part of the inaugural cohort of the digital administration. In an effort to expedite the transition to digitized government services and operations, Hirai has directed the engineers and experts to enter directly into the Japanese bureaucracy rather than through private contractors. Hirai has echoed Suga’s urgency: “it’s now or never,” the minister affirmed in a 2020 interview with Financial Times, citing the pandemic as a chief impetus for Suga’s resolve. The impetus for engineers and technology experts? Career development. In Hirai’s words, “we want people to go in and out—we want a spell in the digital agency to be a boost for someone’s career in the private sector.”

But engineers aren’t the only ones eyeing the new digital agency as an avenue for professional development; Suga’s political career is also at stake. In his zealous urgency towards the initiative, Suga likely hopes to fast track the digitization of the Japanese government before his tenure as Prime Minister ends in September 2021. Digitization seems poised to become a crowning achievement in Suga’s political legacy.Political and professional intentions aside, Japan’s recent strides towards digital optimization address a much more immediate constituency: a Japanese populace ailing from economic fallout and pandemic mismanagement. With expedited governmental operations and services, Japan hopes to join a host of Asian Countries whose digital savvy greatly expedited their pandemic response. But ideally, its modernizing effects will remain long after face masks and travel bans are the global reality.