A surprisingly resilient news story over the past year has been the phasing out of hanko seals and stamps, once considered indispensable for legal documents in Japan. Foreign news services treated such seals as another quaint feature of Japanese life, but, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the problems attendant to their use, which require face-to-face encounters between parties finalizing a process, became more pronounced, so much so that the government has positioned the digitization of these processes as a priority and is creating a special agency to make it a reality.

On Feb. 9, the Asahi Shimbun explained the goals of the new agency, one of which, according to digital transformation minister Takuya Hirai, is to be able to conclude any administrative procedure in less than a minute on a smartphone. The main tool will be the My Number identity card that is being distributed to every resident of Japan.

A three-part series that appeared in Tokyo Shimbun last December gave some indication of what kinds of procedures the new system may replace. Reporter Chiaki Sawada returned from a three-year assignment in London last fall and found that re-entering Japanese society as a citizen was more difficult than trying to enter British society as a foreign national.

Describing herself as an analog person, Sawada says she nevertheless had little problem meeting the administrative requirements for her residence in the United Kingdom, all of which she carried out online. She never had to visit a government office during her whole time in London.

The process to reassert her Japan residency was more complicated. In order to sign up for public services such as national health insurance, not to mention obtain a cell phone and open a bank account, she first had to acquire a residence certificate (jūminhyō) at the local government office of the municipality where she planned to live, Chiba City. She checked the Chiba City home page and then showed up at City Hall with her passport and My Number notification card, thinking it would suffice, but she had failed to read the section about returnees from overseas. The clerk told her she also needed to submit a copy of her family registry (koseki tōhon), which was filed on the island of Shikoku where her family is from. She called the relevant office and asked if they could send the document by post. They eventually said she first had to send them proof of her address in Chiba, but she needed the family registry in order to get a resident certificate. In that case, she would have to pick it up in person, or they could give it to the head of household on the family registry. She asked her elderly mother to pick it up, and finally received the paperwork two weeks later.

She had better luck when she registered her new car. In order for her to obtain a registration certificate, she also needed proof of a permanent parking space, which is required in Japan, so she obtained a document from the manager of the garage where she would rent a space and took it to the police station. Three days later she received the police certification for the parking space and brought it to the dealer, who then issued the certificate. She could apply for the certificate online but the parking proof part, it seems, still has to be done in person.

Hanko is a personal seal used as the legal method of identification | GETTY IMAGES
Hanko is a personal seal used as the legal method of identification | GETTY IMAGES

The overarching theme of the series is that mechanical elements such as her official seal, which she still had to register in order to obtain the registration for her vehicle, aren’t as significant as the vertically oriented nature of many processes in Japan. Cellphone providers, convenience stores and other businesses set up their own cashless payment systems without making them accessible to other businesses. Rather than subscribe to numerous e-money plans, it’s easier to carry cash, especially for older people. According to Sawada, Japan is good at creating “niche products.” That is the core meaning of omotenashi, the Japanese form of customer service, but by the same token individual parties don’t like working with other parties.

The same goes double for the public sector. The family registry is administered by the Justice Ministry, while resident certification is the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Such functions should be unified, and the government has been trying for years. Remember Juki Net, the national registry network started in 2002? Before moving to London, Sawada lived in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. Apparently, her data was wiped from the Juki Net system when she reported to the ward office that she was moving overseas. That’s why she had to start from zero when she moved back. Juki Net is being replaced by the My Number system, but, due to privacy concerns, the Justice Ministry does not share family registry information with local governments. Unable to access family registers, the basic evidentiary instrument of Japanese nationality, the system offers no real advantage. The internal affairs ministry told Sawada that while there is talk about digitizing the family registry, first the government has to take into consideration “national character” and “historical trends,” meaning, presumably, that there are cultural reasons for maintaining the family registry as a physical document, a notion that should make fans of official seals happy.

So the new digital agency, whose mission, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, is to “destroy” the vertical orientation of Japanese bureaucracy, has its work cut out for it, since government organs tend to protect their bailiwicks. And if it took a deadly virus to get the authorities to do away with official seals and stamps, what is needed to eliminate other outmoded means of administrative interaction? It should be noted that Sawada’s reassimilation problems were not limited to her living situation, but extended to her work. When she sought interviews for her Tokyo Shimbun series with public officials she was told to submit a formal request by fax, another fixture of Japanese life the foreign media finds anachronistic. Paper still rules, at least for the time being.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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