Japan’s parliament, the Diet, recently passed three laws to promote a “digital society.” The new laws, which were published in the Official Gazette on May 19, 2021, are the Basic Act on Forming a Digital Society (Act No. 35 of 2021), the Act on Establishing the Digital Agency (Act No. 36 of 2021), and the Act on Adjusting Laws Related to Forming a Digital Society (Act No. 37 of 2021).
Japan’s Slow Pace of Digitalization
Despite Japan’s having an advanced internet infrastructure and the seventh-highest number of internet users in the world, it ranked only 27th in the 2020 Institute for Management Development (IMD) World Digital Competitiveness Ranking. The government of Japan’s official magazine, Kizuna, further notes that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the major issue of “the particularly slow pace of digitalization in administrative services, exemplified by complicated procedures and slow benefit payments.”
One cause of the slow pace of digitalization is the national government’s only partially streamlined IT systems. To address this problem, the Japanese Cabinet has promoted the integration of government information systems and facilitated cooperation with private systems.
That many administrative applications cannot be done online further impedes the acceleration of the pace of digitalization. Although the government initiated plans to enable people to submit documents for administrative procedures online in 2001, currently more than 80% of administrative procedures have been left behind. This has not been convenient for people, especially during the pandemic.
Another cause of the slow pace of digitization is people’s reluctance to use their “individual numbers” and individual number cards. The government had assigned individuals with a cross-disciplinary number to enable their quick and reliable identification in matters related to social security, taxes, and disaster countermeasures. Accordingly, the municipalities began issuing Individual Number (IN) cards in 2016. IN cards can be used by individuals as an identification card to verify their identity and to receive government services, including municipality services. However, people in Japan have been reluctant to obtain the cards because they suspect that IN cards are a convenient tool for the government to know their financial situation. As of April 2020, the number of IN cards issued was only 15.5 % of the total population. If more residents had possessed IN cards when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, emergency cash handouts in 2020 would have been faster. Likewise, the scheduling of appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations would have been faster had the government used the IN cards to identify people eligible for COVID-19 vaccination rather than directing municipalities to send paper tickets to eligible residents.
Key Provisions of the Three New Acts
Under the Basic Act on Forming a Digital Society, “digital society” is defined as a society in which users freely and safely obtain, share, or disseminate diverse information or knowledge on a global scale via the internet and other advanced information and communication networks, and which enables creative and vibrant developments in all fields by properly and effectively utilizing diverse and large amounts of information using information and cutting-edge technologies. (Art. 2.) The Basic Act stipulates the basic policy regarding the formulation of basic principles and measures for the formation of digital society; the responsibilities of the national government, local governments and businesses; the establishment of the Digital Agency; and the creation of priority plans. (Art. 1.) The national government is responsible for formulating and implementing measures for the formation of a digital society. (Art. 13.)
Under the Act on Establishing the Digital Agency, the Digital Agency will officially start business on September 1, 2021. The agency plans to have about 500 officials, including IT engineers recruited from the business sector. The duty of the agency is to promptly execute administrative affairs related to the formation of a digital society. (Act on Establishing the Digital Agency art. 3.) The cabinet finalized the Digital Government Action Plan in December 2020. The Digital Agency will implement the plan.
Among the important tasks set forth in the plan are ensuring that most residents of Japan obtain their IN cards and expanding the use of the IN card. By October 2021, people will be able to use IN cards as health insurance cards. The plan lists other card functions, such as use as residence cards and student cards, to be added to IN cards. Another important task is establishing information systems compatible with new technologies through the use of cloud services. In addition, the government will strengthen IT governance, centralize management, strengthen security, and reduce operating costs by further integrating and aggregating information systems and data that each ministry and agency independently develops and operates.
The Act on Adjusting Laws Related to Forming a Digital Society amended many laws to enable the implementation the above two laws.