News Analysis: COVID-19 Outbreak Shows Japan Lagging In E-government Services


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a number of countries to turn toward digital technologies to respond to the crisis. However, the inadequacy of e-government services in Japan has led to delays in the process of applying for subsidies and loans, creating confusion among those who made online applications to receive the benefit.

At the beginning of this century, the Japanese government proposed to build an “e-government”, setting the goal of making all administrative procedures available online. But a recent report by the Japan Research Institute showed that only 7.5 percent of the more than 55,700 administrative procedures in Japan’s central administrative departments could be completed online as of March 2019.

Atsuko Nomura, senior researcher at the Japan Research Institute in Tokyo, said that most administrative procedures in Japan at present still require to be handled in person, submit paper documents and be stamped.

In the Japanese government’s efforts to deal with the outbreak, the country’s My Number card system failed to function well, leading to a huge backlog of applications and sent crowds of people pouring into city halls to fix related problems, said Nomura.

My Number card system was put into operation in January 2016, which allocates each resident in Japan including foreigners a 12-digit number if they have their residency registered with authorities. The system is a representative of the Japanese government’s e-government service, allowing cardholders to file tax returns and apply for child allowances online.

If residents want to apply online for a 100,000 yen (933 United States dollar) universal cash handout from the government, they must have a My Number card at first. In order to get the payment at an early time, many people have flocked to apply for the card, especially in large metropolis such as Tokyo, where government agencies are already overwhelmed.

Another problem is that when some cardholders have forgotten their password or when it has expired, they need to go to a local government counter to have a new one issued. As a result, the wait time to get the card has been extended from one to two months.

With these problems repeatedly exposed by the media, the slow progress of the My Number card system is also revealed to the public. According to data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, a total of 20.33 million My Number cards have been issued by April 1 this year, accounting for only 16 percent of the population.

In an online discussion of “Will you take the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to apply for My Number card?” launched by weekly magazine Nikkei Business, many people expressed a wait-and-see attitude. They believed the card was not so useful at the moment, and it was very troublesome to apply online.

The My Number card system, which was built with a huge sum of money, became virtually useless at the critical moment of the pandemic. This has incurred a rash of criticism.

According to some local media, Japan apparently is lagging far behind other countries in terms of personal identification system and administrative efficiency. Due to a failure in the online application system, the 100,000-yen cash payment application is mainly by mail. As of June 5, only 16.36 million households received the subsidy, accounting for about 28 percent.

Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, told local media that the digitization of administrative services is one of the biggest issues facing the country.

The government has spent a lot of money on e-government, but failed to make it efficient, he said, adding that as a result, many struggling companies have not been able to receive subsidies in time.


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