• Kyodo

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The city of Ichikawa in Chiba Prefecture has joined the ranks of banks and e-commerce firms utilizing convenience stores to reach the public.

The city began a service in May that gives customers access to information on its administrative affairs and other municipal matters, making it the nation’s first public entity to hook up with convenience stores.

The system is aimed at making things more convenient for Ichikawa residents, 36 percent of whom live alone and more than 70 percent of whom work within the metropolis, according to the city government.

Computer terminals at 1,686 convenience stores operated by Lawson Inc., Sunkus & Associates Inc. and Yamazaki Baking Co. in the locality, as well as in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, are being used for the new system.

From the terminals, customers can obtain information on the city’s volunteer activities, child-rearing, health and welfare issues, and make reservations for the use of public facilities such as halls and sports venues.

The site, simply named Ichikawa City, Chiba, is displayed alongside sites for ticket reservations and game software.

The service is also accessible via the Internet, officials said.

“The government in itself is the greatest service industry,” Ichikawa Mayor Mitsuyuki Chiba said. “There is no way we will not grab the opportunity to make ourselves available 24 hours a day.”

An executive at Lawson also expressed high hopes for the system. “I hope this will encourage not-so-visible customers to come to our convenience stores more often,” he said, referring to the elderly and housewives.

A survey conducted during a trial run of the system last year showed that more than half of those polled would like to use such a system even if charged a fee.

Ichikawa officials said they also plan to use the terminals for tax payments and to issue resident cards and register personal seals.

They are also studying ways to use the machines to process papers as is done at City Hall, but they have yet to iron out how to protect people’s privacy and check identities.

For the identification of residents, the city plans to use integrated-circuit cards carrying a person’s name, address and resident number. The IC card system was created last year under the amendment of the law on resident registration.

The number of users has reached about 100 a day since the system’s inception, city officials said.

Problems cited so far include the terminals’ poor performance compared with personal computers and the focus of services on those who frequently use public halls and other facilities, they said.

Yet another problem is the extent to which convenience store employees can act as proxies for local government employees, because unlike public officials, they are not bound to follow the rules of privacy, according to the city officials.

Kiyotake Inaba, a professor of administrative information systems at Gunma University, said the idea of accessibility represented by convenience stores has lent a hand to the success of the service.

“The (participating) convenience stores form a network that now surpasses even that of post offices,” he said.

But how to deal with matters such as that concerning the use of resident numbers, which is still greatly opposed by many people, has yet to be seriously considered, Inaba said.