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How Coronavirus Has Revealed Japan’s Tech Backwardness

By Ichiro Suzuki That Japan is leading the world in cutting edge technology has been an illusion that continues to persist for some time. There are people who refuse to give up such an illusion. There used to be a time when made-in-Japan consumer electronics gadgets sparkled in the global markets. Toward the end of the 20th century, Japanese tech stumbled a big time upon the advent of the internet, and got lost in the digital age. To those who insist on holding on to an illusion of the past, coronavirus have brought a shock wave revealing them where Japanese tech stands. In spring amid a threat of growing number of coronavirus cases, Corporate Japan shifted into a work-from-home (WFM) mode, like everyone else in the world. The majority of workers found much of what they have been doing at the office until then can be done at home, of course enabled by modern technology. One thing, however, did not fit into that mode. What’s done in the digital space has to be approved by his/ her boss and the boss’s boss, through affixing a seal (casually called ‘hanko’) physically on paper. The job of placing hanko on paper, which requires no brain, brings people to the office, perhaps once a week, solely for this purpose.  Having realized the absurdity of hanko requirements, Corporate Japan is moving toward accepting digital approvals among private transactions. Despite such a move, legal documents still require hanko physically on paper, and the law has to be changed to go totally digital. The relatively recently created cabinet position, IT minister, is a light weight post in the cabinet with only a symbolic significance whose essential job appears to be getting budgets for bureaucrats for the sake of promoting technology. The man who currently holds the position of IT minister is not only an old man who will soon be 80 years old but also has a title of the head of MPs association of preserving hanko. Naokazu Takemoto is not surprisingly reluctant to give a death knell to hanko. Of course his knowledge in technology is very, very basic. This light weight position has been traditionally given to unheralded MPs who have been elected often enough to qualify for a cabinet post of some kind. This is why it’s been always been given to an old man, not to the one with expert knowledge in technology.   Mr. Takemoto stands on the completely different polar from Audrey Tang, the woman who holds the same position for the Taiwanese government. Ms. Tang is a highly touted software engineer, and is credited for the program she wrote for distribution of masks at an early stage of of the epidemic. She is one of the reasons that Taiwan is essentially unscathed in this global pandemic. Having witnessed a laughable state of hanko requirements, Japan’s PM Abe has stated his intention of rewriting a law so that digital authorization can be legally accepted, but Mr. Takemoto still remains as IT minister, at least for now.  In responses to the economy’s shutdown, the Japanese government has embarked on massive fiscal stimulus programs, a common move in the developed world. These programs include handing out 100,000 yen ($900) to every resident, regardless of nationality. City office of every municipality mails an application format to every household. All needs to be done to get the cash is mailing it back with his or her signature and bank account details. Or, it can be applied through the municipality’s website. As it turned out, however, this digital application process is not digital at all. City office employees manually check the accuracy of every single digital application. This tedious process makes digital applications more time-consuming than mailing back an envelope. The IT system was not designed to eliminate manual works fully. There was a reasonable chance that when the bureaucracy introduced the system several years ago, bureaucrats did not know what they should be really wanting from the system that they were going to build. The bureaucrats who were in charge of this project were some of the top talents in the country with a shining academic background. Nonetheless, they are not geeks with an ability to design but are too much of a generalist.  So getting geeks is a solution, perhaps? However, it is far from certain how a talent like Ms. Audrey Tang fits into the excessively seniority-revering rigid culture of Japanese organizations, either the cabinet or the bureaucracy. It is hard to think that a thirty-something geek is well accepted and taken seriously in a cabinet whose average age can be almost his/ her father’s. In the bureaucracy, can a geek who heads a big IT project be compensated properly, perhaps being paid a couple of million dollars that can be ten times as much as what top bureaucrats get? Road ahead for Japan looks rather long. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.


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