When Kono Taro was tapped last month to lead the government’s one-year-old Digital Agency, dedicated to digitizing Japan’s bureaucracy, headlines lit up with his opening salvos. No more fax machines! Out with floppy disks! His proclamations, delivered via Twitter, elicited cheers overseas. Inside Japan, they were met with muted bemusement.
Fluent in English and dubbed a “maverick” by the global media, the former foreign affairs and defense minister Kono is Japan’s most visible and Twitter-friendly politician ever, in a country more typically known for faceless bureaucrats. (When Yoshitaka Sakurada, the 72-year-old cybersecurity minister for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games shamelessly said that he had never once used a computer, his confession was greeted by shock and embarrassment. Though he was promptly forced to resign, no one remembers his name.)
Kono is Japan’s third digital minister in less than a year, leading a department that’s yet to make its mark. For some, his appointment augurs a long-awaited shift into high gear; for others, his man-in-a-hurry image is linked as much to a talent for performing change as actually getting it done. A year and a half ago, Kono successfully untangled the bureaucratic knots and analog procedural requirements holding up Japan’s vaccine rollout, and his reputation follows him to the Digital Agency.
“Kono is perfect for this moment,” Joi Ito, former director of MIT Media Lab and the cofounder of the Japan-based startup incubation company Digital Garage, told Rest of World. “He’s tough on bureaucrats, and he has a good team with actual software engineers. He also has a good relationship with Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, which will be critical for coordinating plans with big business. And Kono [has] a huge following on Twitter.”
Preferring to use social media rather than a slew of post-appointment interviews, in August, Kono posted a YouTube video promising a laundry list of 1,900 digital transformations that will make life “safe, convenient and prosperous” for Japan’s rapidly aging and declining population — within seven months, by March of next year. The proposals span everything from filing online disaster certificates during crises like earthquakes and typhoons to digitizing more pedestrian processes like changing addresses and signing up for child care services.
To skeptics, the diffuse mandate and distant deadline give Kono ample wriggle room and enough news cycles for public amnesia to set in. March is the end of Japan’s fiscal and academic year, when the results of a minor government agency will barely register as a blip.
Ministerial jobs at newly minted agencies like Kono’s can be doled out by prime ministers who wish to keep rivals at bay. As Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said to Rest of World: “These ministerial positions are inherently weak and uncompetitive in Kasumigaseki (the seat of Japan’s cabinet) because they encroach upon the turf of other established ministries with decades-long bureaucratic traditions.” Unlike Covid-19 vaccines, digital reforms can wait.
The Japanese government has had some kind of digital venture on the books since 2001, when its inconclusive “e-Japan” strategy was launched. Two decades later, floppy disks and fax machines are still very much de rigueur in Japan’s ministries, universities, and corporate headquarters — indifferent to the fact that they might be a stereotype of the nation’s outdated infrastructure. It begs the question: Even if Kono can deliver, do these transformations really matter to Japan’s political leaders and their constituents?
Japan has the largest proportion of elderly citizens of any country in the world. At 59, Kono is poised to bridge its yawning generation gap. One of his biggest challenges will be convincing the gerontocracy not only that digital progress is a priority, but also getting its members to step aside.
“Deference to authority and the elderly in Japan allows seniors to stay analog without feeling ashamed,” said Ito. “In the U.S., even among fairly senior people, there is a push to keep up with tech. Here in Japan, calling people on the phone is still quite common, and this is partially a deference to older people who don’t feel comfortable sending a text or an email.”
Historically, too, there’s been a perception that maintaining privacy and security is linked with keeping information offline. When it comes to personal consumption, the Japanese are model early adopters. But with public-facing data such as government-issued ID cards, shopping transactions, medical records, and online identifiers like Google’s geolocation services, Japan has consistently opted for control over digitized convenience.
In 2008, a coalition of Japanese lawyers, journalists, and professors demanded that Google scrap its Street View service in Japan because its photos of private property, passersby, and license plates were “a violent infringement on citizens’ privacy.” A year later, Japan’s justice ministry lodged an official protest against Google Earth for posting historical maps of neighborhoods housing burakumin, a group of people historically discriminated against for being among Japan’s lowest-caste citizens.
Google apologized, swiftly changing its entire catalog of Japan images for Street View, with faces, signs, and license plates blurred, and deleting all of its offensive historical maps of Japan’s outcasts.
In recent years, e-money has been slow to take hold in Japan, despite advances during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s partly because many Japanese — especially those over 65 — balk at leaving digital fingerprints of every transaction.
Easy Luddite laughs aside, it’s becoming increasingly clear that keeping processes offline is no guarantee for security. In just the first half of 2022, Japan has seen an 87% spike in ransomware attacks, one of which forced Toyota to briefly shutter all 14 of its domestic factories. A municipal employee infamously lost the data of an entire township, housed on a USB drive, after a night out drinking. In one analyst’s account, Japan’s digital delinquency could lead to what METI calls a “digital cliff” by 2025, costing the nation over $84 billion annually due to inefficient practices.
Kono’s mission might be morphing into an emergency. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be given the latitude to deal with it, or that it’s even in his interests to.
“I think Kono is grossly overrated by the western media and diplomatic circles because he is fluent in English and talks like an American Republican,” said Nakano. “He is more into media strategy than actual delivery of digital policy, and much more interested in becoming the prime minister one day. So he knows that he should cast a fresh, iconoclastic image to the general public and the media without really offending the party elders.”
Kono’s Japanese-language tweets, in contrast to those on his separate English-language account, are more clerical, less emotional. He links to public service announcements and hiring, not self-deprecating observations. So far, his proclamations are hitting home where they’re meant to: outside of Japan. For the maverick, would-be PM Kono to shift those perceptions inside Japan by March 2023 will take more than ditching a few floppy disks.