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Administrative reform minister Taro Kono’s push to rid central government offices of their entrenched fax culture has hit a snag after being met with fierce resistance from bureaucrats who insist it needs to be preserved for security and other reasons.

A crusade against the fax — an old-fashioned method of communication that remains pervasive in many corners of Japanese society — has been one of Kono’s most symbolic gestures as a buster of red tape.

In June, the Headquarters for the Promotion of Administrative Reform issued notices to all central ministries, including their affiliated agencies, to stop using fax by the end of that month, and asked them to report back if there were reasons they would be unable to implement the shift.

Later the same month, Kono reiterated the need for bureaucrats in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district, where most central ministry offices are located, to stop relying on fax and transition fully to email as a means of communication, save for some exceptions. He claimed that the culture of fax was serving as an impediment to bureaucrats working from home amid the pandemic.

“I want them to stop communicating via fax when there is no good reason for them to do so and switch to emails,” Kono told a news conference. The comment followed his reported statement in April that he wanted the use of fax in Kasumigaseki to be “scrapped entirely.”

An all-in-one printer, incorporating fax functionality, used to receive tips of bid-rigging from businesses at the Fair Trade Commission in Tokyo in December 2020 | THE FAIR TRADE COMMISSION / VIA KYODO
An all-in-one printer, incorporating fax functionality, used to receive tips of bid-rigging from businesses at the Fair Trade Commission in Tokyo in December 2020 | THE FAIR TRADE COMMISSION / VIA KYODO

But this turned out to be easier said than done.

Since the notice was issued in June, the administrative reform task force, which is set up within the Cabinet Secretariat, has been inundated with about 400 responses from bureaucrats laying out all the reasons why they think fax needs to be maintained, said Naoya Takeda, an official with the task force. The resistance has resulted in more exceptions being allowed than originally anticipated, he said.

According to Takeda, some of the rebuttals were expected, such as the argument that fax needs to be kept as a backup communication channel in case emails shut down in the event of a natural disaster or another crisis. There were also those who pointed out that fax still serves as a popular line of communication for some members of the public and private businesses, not all of whom are comfortable using email to send their opinions or petitions to the government. In these instances, fax will continue to remain available.

One of the exceptions not initially considered was the need among bureaucrats to deal with the proceedings of Japanese civil courts, where digitization is slow and documents often need to be sent by post or brought in person if they are not faxed. Fax can also continue to be used as a way for bureaucrats to receive copies of newspaper articles provided through what is known as a press clipping service, where fax is cheaper than email.

The use of fax will also be allowed for the exchange of sensitive information, based on the belief that it is less vulnerable than email to cyberattacks and data breaches.

Questions have arisen over the supposedly secure nature of fax, however, with Check Point Research — the research team of leading global cyber security provider Check Point Software Technologies — releasing a report in 2018 illustrating “critical vulnerabilities” in the popular fax protocol.

The report, titled “Faxploit: Sending Fax Back to the Dark Ages,” said there is a way for “an attacker with mere access to a phone line, and a fax number” to hack its victim’s all-in-one printer, and as a result gain “full control over the all-in-one printer and possibly the entire network it is connected to.”

A voter sends an absentee ballot, in an Upper House election in 2016, from Showa Station in Antarctica. | NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF POLAR RESEARCH / VIA KYODO
A voter sends an absentee ballot, in an Upper House election in 2016, from Showa Station in Antarctica. | NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF POLAR RESEARCH / VIA KYODO

Going forward, one of the issues to be scrutinized by the administrative reform task force will be what to do about queries from legislators, with many bureaucrats reporting that faxing documents is an ingrained aspect of the working culture in many lawmakers’ offices, Takeda said.

Nonetheless, it cannot be said that the move to go paperless isn’t taking off at all among Diet members.

A recent survey carried out by Work Life Balance Co. involving more than 300 national public servants indicated that the pandemic has facilitated changes toward digitization among some lawmakers.

According to the poll, while 86% of the respondents said last summer that they didn’t think their way of communicating with lawmakers had shifted from fax to emails, the figure had dropped significantly to about 30% in April this year — although some bureaucrats think there is still room for improvement.

“There is still a staunch culture of faxing. I can only hope it will go away as soon as possible,” an official with the Cabinet Secretariat told the survey anonymously, adding that some lawmakers still send over lists of queries only via that medium.

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