As society grows more aloof, census takers suffer


Hiroshi Tamura is keenly aware of the great changes that have taken place in his neighborhood in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, where he has lived for more than half a century.

Tamura, not his real name, is one of 850,000 people across the country who have been mobilized for the Oct. 1 national census.

As of the end of last week, he was able to meet only about 80 percent of the residents of the roughly 50 houses and apartment buildings he’s assigned to survey.

One reason, he said, is the rise in the number of apartment buildings with self-locking entrances, which has made it more difficult for census takers to approach residents.

“An apartment building is an independent society within itself, where people try not to encroach on each other’s privacy at all,” he said.

Two emerging realities also plague census workers like Tamura: the disappearance of traditional community ties and the increase in concern about privacy issues.

Experts and government officials agree that the national census, which has boasted a high accuracy rate thanks to the face-to-face work of the surveyors, is probably approaching a critical turning point.

“Some foreign countries can no longer conduct a national census because of the cost involved and people’s increased sensitivity about their privacy,” said Minezo Fujita, a former senior official at the statistics center of the Management and Coordination Agency.

He noted that some European countries like the Netherlands, France and Germany have given up trying to count every citizen and now use a limited sampling survey because of the enormous cost involved and people’s reluctance to give personal data to the government.

“Right now, Japan is facing a similar crisis,” Fujita said.

Here, local governments first draw up maps covering all residential buildings in their municipality. They then dispatch census takers who try to contact residents at each home on their map and directly hand them a questionnaire form.

Every resident of Japan must respond to the questionnaire, including non-Japanese residents who stay in Japan for three months or longer.

This face-to-face interaction between surveyors and residents has contributed greatly to maintaining high accuracy, experts say. A followup sampling survey concluded that the 2000 census was able to cover an estimated 99.2 percent of all households in Japan, according to Fujita.

But government officials are anxious about the accuracy rate this time around, as census staff like Tamura are facing growing difficulty in contacting urban residents.

Masako Suda, an official in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s population statistic section, points out that a law to protect personal information that took effect in April has made the work of census takers particularly difficult.

The law was enacted in the wake of a series of massive customer data leaks at corporations.

According to Suda, census workers are having problems because many custodians of apartment complexes refuse to cooperate, citing the new personal data protection law.

The personal information protection law does not apply to the national census, which is conducted under the Statistics Law. But while housing management firms are aware of this, it is not widely known among the building custodians they dispatch, and the custodians have become extremely cautious about any potential leakage of clients’ personal data, Suda said.

“(Face-to-face) surveys by interviewers have already reached their limit.”

Tamura in Sumida Ward also points out that people have become more reluctant to open their doors to strangers because of the recent rise in fraud cases.

“In the past, we all knew each other and could see the day-to-day lives of our neighbors,” he said. “But now people are very cautious because they don’t know much about each other and crimes where people are trying to deceive you have increased.”

The signs of declining census accuracy are already visible.

In the last census in 2002, staff were unable to directly contact 1.01 million households, or 2.2 percent of the total number the survey covered. The figure was four times as high as that for the 1995 census, when the corresponding number was just 254,484 households.

If they are unable to meet residents directly, census takers leave a questionnaire in their post box, hoping they will fill it out and send it back to them by mail. But in the 2000 census, 80.2 percent of those forms — 1.7 percent of the 47,030,954 households covered by the census — were not returned, up 1.25 points from the 1995 survey.

This no-response rate was particularly high in urban areas, where more single-person households and double-income households live in apartment buildings. The rate was 5.9 percent in Tokyo, 2.6 percent in Fukuoka and 2.2. percent in Osaka.

An increasing number of foreign residents is another factor that has made the work of census takers difficult.

The form has been translated into 19 languages, and the government has stepped up ad campaigns to raise awareness among the non-Japanese public. But getting the details on foreigners is still tough work, officials said.

In Tokyo, 300,905 non-Japanese were registered as residents as of 2000. But that year’s national census found only 212,975 foreign nationals living in the capital.

The two figures can’t simply be compared because some foreigners move out of Tokyo without changing their resident registration. But the difficulty in finding non-Japanese people for the census is probably one reason for the gap, experts say.

Foreigners without proper visas are even more difficult to incorporate into the census, as they fear they may be arrested and deported if they respond to the survey.

Officials stress that the census is strictly for statistical purposes and that findings will not be used for any immigration crackdown, but they also acknowledge that few illegal residents will believe this.

Fujita believes the accuracy of the census is more important than ever because the population is projected to start shrinking next year, its first contraction in the modern era, excluding a brief period during World War II.

The national census serves as the most fundamental data for the government in mapping out various administrative services, including for non-Japanese.

For example, a local government would use the census to draw up antidisaster plans for its residents. The long-term design of the public pension system is also based on the demographics revealed by the census.

“The decline in (census) accuracy is unacceptable because Japan is entering an era of critical social changes,” Fujita said.