In the last several months, the government has floated several new policy ideas designed to increase the adoption of My Number cards. While the personal identification system was first introduced in 2015, only about 17 percent of Japanese residents hold My Number cards. This is a problem, according to officials. They claim that widespread adoption of the My Number system would decrease administrative costs substantially as well as increase the efficiency of social service delivery.

Our recent research (forthcoming in the Journal of Politics) suggests one possible reason for why so few Japanese sign up for My Number cards — and why current proposals might not succeed. In June 2018, we conducted a survey with a sample of 4,514 Japanese residents. The purpose of the survey was to understand how Japanese residents express political opinions when they believe themselves to be under possible surveillance.

In the survey, we asked respondents for their opinion on eight different domestic and foreign policy issues. These included whether: (1) they approved of Japanese economic conditions; (2) whether they supported the Liberal Democratic Party; (3) whether they approved of same-sex marriage; (4) whether they thought that capital punishment should be maintained; (5) whether they supported the anti-terror conspiracy law; (6) whether they supported restarting nuclear reactors; (7) whether Japan should acquire nuclear weapons; and (8) whether the Self-Defense Forces can exercise collective self-defense.

We selected these topics because previous research has shown that Japanese residents might be cautious to reveal their true opinions on these issues.

To see if Japanese residents express their opinions differently when under possible surveillance, we conducted an experiment. We randomly provided some respondents with information that their online activities were being monitored by either a company or the government. After this information, we also randomly provided respondents with the choice to either select that they had no opinion about our survey questions or to opt out of the survey entirely. We told respondents that if they exited the survey, they would not be paid (even though we paid them anyway).

We found that presenting information about possible government surveillance caused Japanese respondents to opt out of the survey. When prompted that the government might collect information about their online actions, respondents were 8 percentage points more likely to leave the survey. This is true even though they thought that exiting the survey would lose them money. These results suggest that one possible reason why My Number card adoption has stalled: Japanese residents may opt out of activities when they think that the government might be surveilling them.

In our survey, opting out meant the government could no longer collect information they entered into the survey. Maybe Japanese residents opt out of the My Number card to avoid the government collecting personal data through the card.

On the other hand, we found that when we included a prompt in the survey that a company might be monitoring them, the respondents were not more likely to opt out. Taken together, these results suggest that Japanese residents are not necessarily concerned about surveillance in general, but about government surveillance in particular.

Our research has several possible implications for the My Number card initiative. First, our findings suggest that concerns about government monitoring likely curtail program participation. The national government can potentially address these fears by providing clear information about what exactly it will monitor through the My Number program.

That the data will be monitored and supervised by an independent information protection committee is a step in the right direction, but it is essential that citizens have trust in this oversight system. The leaking of personal information from the pension system several years ago may have undermined Japanese citizens’ faith in government data protection, and the government will have to prove that the data will be safe and not misused.

Second, our findings indicate that attempts to increase the monetary benefits of the My Number card use might face some issues. Many respondents left our survey after being told that the government might be monitoring their online activities, even though this meant that they wouldn’t be paid. Respondents were paid no more than ¥130 for participating in our survey, though. So the Japanese government might be successful in encouraging My Number adoption if the immediate benefits of participation are nontrivial.

Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, and a senior data scientist at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. Kristine Eck and Sophia Hatz are associate professors in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. Atsushi Tago is a professor in the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University.

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