Japan’s new My Number identification cards were supposed to be a step forward for digitalization. Instead, numerous errors now risk exposing just how backwards we still are. Politics reporter Gabriele Ninivaggi joins us to discuss whether the whole debacle will have an impact on the ruling party.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna 00:09

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna. There was a time when Hollywood depictions of the future were heavily influenced by Japanese culture, which led to many people, myself included, thinking that Japan was a very futuristic place. It's not like Japan is not futuristic, but people who come here tend to be a bit amused at the use of fax machines, say, and cite them as often shattering their illusions of the country as a model for the future. Among the critics of Japan's old-fashioned way of doing things is Liberal Democratic Party politician Taro Kono. Kono is the current head of Japan's digital agency, a government body instituted in 2021, to oversee the modernization and digitization of Japanese society, starting with the central government and then local governments. However, his position means he's also at the center of a current kerfuffle over the introduction of a new form of ID, one known as the My Number card. On today's show, politics reporter Gabrielle Ninivaggi joins me to discuss the issues surrounding the My Number card, how it's impacting the prime minister, and what it means for Kono, the man many know is Japan's most popular politician.

Before we bring Gabriele on, here's some background on the Individual Number Card, which is more commonly known as the My Number card.

If you live and work in Japan, around 2016 you will have received a document in the mail with your number. I've still got mine. It's a greenish piece of paper with a 12-digit number on it, as well as my name, address, birthday and gender, and I keep it in a safe place. At the time you received this number, you were also likely given a choice of whether or not to get a physical ID card, which is valid for 10 years. According to the Internal Affairs Ministry. As of late July, just over 77% of the population had applied for the cards. The cards were introduced as a way to enhance public convenience, improve administrative efficiency, and they've become a key element to the government social security and tax collection infrastructure. The card itself includes a chip that stores pretty much all your information. I didn't get the physical card, but when I was trying to get proof of my COVID vaccinations to travel overseas, I was instructed that the process would have been much smoother if I'd had the card. Someone who did get the physical card was contributing writer Eric Margolis. In fact, just before the scandal surrounding the My Number card kind of erupted. Eric was in the pages of The Japan Times touting its virtues in an article titled, “The My Number card has some real benefits. Is it time you got yours?

Eric Margolis 02:48

I applied for My Number card several years ago at my local ward office. I applied in Japanese but they also have English service there and it probably took 30, 45 minutes. Then I got my physical My Number card a couple of weeks after that in the mail.

Shaun McKenna 03:03

In that piece, he specifically cited how the card helped him as a freelancer pay his taxes.

Eric Margolis 03:07

I used the My Number card to pay my taxes this past year online. It was super easy, it probably took about an hour in total.

Shaun McKenna 03:24

Eric's piece went on to outline how to apply for the My Number card, but just as we were publishing the story... we were seeing these reports pop up of instances of human error that were connecting My Number of cards to the wrong bank accounts.

So here are the problems.

Since the cards were introduced, it has been a challenge to get the public to actually use them in the way that they were meant to be used. Japan's aging population in particular seems to have expressed resistance to any form of a centralized system. So the government came up with a plan to merge people's health insurance cards with the My Number cards and are looking to do this by the fall of next year 2024. In May, the health ministry confirmed that there were more than 7,300 cases in which health insurance data linked to the cards was incorrect. A survey by the Japanese Medical and Dental Practitioners for the Improvement of Medical Care in June found that nearly 60% of Japanese medical institutions had experienced problems with the cards such as a person's insurance data being linked to the wrong card. Another selling point of the My Number card is that you can print out official documents using the card at say, a convenience store. But in 14 cases in four municipalities over the past couple of years, certificates belonging to people other than the cardholder were issued to people who tried to print them.

And then it was learned, while around 55 million people have linked their cards to their bank account, at least 130,000 cases had cards linked to the accounts of someone other than the cardholder.

It turns out parents had been applying for cards for their children, but then registering their own bank accounts so that any government funding, so that's support payments and so on, would go straight to them. While these cases are in the minority, they can still cause widespread concern about putting your information all in one place, the fear of your identity being stolen through one hypothetical computer hack.

In June, The Japan Times Editorial Board issued a piece titled, “My Number glitches undermine Japan's digital future.” That editorial concludes with the line: “The Japanese government, and digital Minister (Taro) Kono, in particular must get in front of these issues and convince the public that they can trust the My Number system. There needs to be complete transparency when problems arise and urgency in fixing them.”

On top of this, there has been a backlash against the plan to abolish the health insurance card in favor of the My Number card. And this backlash is said to have affected public confidence in Kono, Prime Minister Kishida and the government in general. Well, last week, the Prime Minister addressed the issue at a press conference. We'll be back with Gabriele Ninivaggi to hear what decision Kishida came to regarding the cards.

Shaun McKenna 06:08

Hey Gabriele, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 06:10

Hey, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 06:11

So, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been under a certain amount of pressure to abandon the plan to scrap health insurance cards and integrate them with the My Number card. What did he say about this at the press conference he held last Friday.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 06:25

So at the press conference, as was generally expected, Kishida essentially announced that the government will stick to its plans to abolish the health insurance card and merge it with the My Number card by the fall of 2024. There have been previous rumors that the government could postpone its plans to merge the cards after the troubles that you referred to earlier. But that would have been quite complicated legally, and also would have entailed a significant amount of extra work for the bureaucrats. So in the press conference that you mentioned, after an initial apology to the public for the malfunctions, Kishida expressed his resolution to propel digitalization and restore public trust in the system. And in doing so he referred to his time as policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party from 2017 to 2020. And how at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government was considering how to tackle the economic fallout of the pandemic, he painfully realized how backward Japan was in terms of both digitization and digitalization, even compared to some smaller economies. Yeah, so personally, I found it quite amusing that he used the expression, “digitaru haisen,” “haisen” is the word for loss in war, and especially recalls the time when Japan was defeated in World War II and evokes a certain mood of disillusion. So the expression roughly translates as defeat in the digital war, and apparently has been in use for quite some time. I didn't know myself, but still, I thought it was quite a peculiar choice of words on him digital Hyson

Shaun McKenna 07:58

Digital haisen, OK, yeah. How does he plan to restore public trust?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 08:02

So Kishida essentially outlined three big steps.

The government will review all the individual data connected to the cards and this will be done by a task force towards the end of the fall.

Secondly, he added that the administration will strive to prevent further mistakes by establishing across-the-board rules regarding registration procedures,

Lastly, Keisha said that he wants to promote understanding of digitization and address existing concerns within the public at large.

Shaun McKenna 08:42

How does he hope to promote public understanding?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 08:45

So apparently, the government will do this through public service campaigns. That means, of course, advertising, both on the internet and in the real world. And the government plans to mobilize local administrations and the three ministries involved, which are the digital agency, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and health ministry.

Shaun McKenna 09:04

Now, there’s supposed to be a preliminary report on the prevention of personal data errors that is coming out on Aug. 8. We're recording our talk prior to its release, but do you know what's supposed to be in the report?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 09:16

So that's a good question actually. What I personally expect to see is a minute account of this investigation that the government has been conducting over the past month and a half. And that includes the reasons behind the problems and a blueprint on how the government intends to solve these issues if they arise again, in the near or distant future. So most of these glitches are due to human errors as the data entry is still done by humans. So if, on one hand, preventing all these human errors is almost impossible, on the other, I think the government definitely has a lot of work to do in terms of promotion, and getting the message across that despite all this mistakes that you mentioned the card overall has more pros than cons.

Shaun McKenna 10:02

Did Kishida let on at all what he thinks about all the commotion this plan has caused?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 10:06

So Kishida, during the press conference acknowledged that the plan to abolish the current health insurance cards next year had created an uproar within the public, and not just within the public, actually, even from medical professionals. So ultimately, though, Kishida said that he's committed to the plan, as most people expected, and looking at this from a political point of view, consider that a policy turnaround at this stage would only spark further distrust in the government at a time when approval ratings are already fairly low. And, additionally, since a law was enacted to OK this merger at the beginning of June, there would have to be revision of this law. And that would lead to criticism from the opposition and it all risks the public just getting angrier over the whole plan in the long term. Also Kishida’s party, the LDP, governs as part of a ruling coalition with Komeito, and Komeito has rejected any thought of scrapping the plan since the beginning of this rumors. Komeito’s leader, Natsuo Yamaguchi, said to reporters that he didn't see any reason to postpone the plan to merge the cards and reiterated the need to alleviate public anxiety in the run-up to the full 2024 deadline.

Shaun McKenna 11:19

What does the opposition think about this plan?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 11:22

So the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which is the largest opposition in parliament, has always opposed the integration between My Number and the health insurance card. They mostly stressed that they want to protect the health insurance card because they're worried about mistakes or that the system won't work. What they say is that they're worried about old people who may already, you know, feel understandably anxious when they go to the hospital.

Shaun McKenna 11:46

You mentioned a fall 2024 deadline. What happens if you don't get your card by then?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 11:51

So Kishida announced that all those, including foreign residents, who haven't completed the merging by the fall of 2024, will be receiving a separate certificate, which will be valid for a maximum of five years. In so doing the government says it will allow those who haven't proceeded with the card merger to still access health care. But, on the other hand, those in favor of a speedy digitalization say that the certificate itself represents a step back on the way to digitalization as it de facto creates room for an alternative to the My Number card.

Shaun McKenna 12:35

Gabriele, we talked about how Prime Minister Kishida is dealing with the My Number debacle? Hiccups? But there's another key figure mired in this muck and that's digital minister Taro Kono. Before we get into how the issue has affected him, though, let's get a little background on the guy considered to be Japan's most popular politician.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 12:59

So, Taro Kono was born in Hiratsuka, which is in Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo, and he's now 60 years old. His father is Yohei Kono, who used to be Deputy Prime Minister and President of the LDP when the LDP was the opposition, actually. And even before, Taro Kono’s grandfather grandfather, called Ichiro Kono, used to be a prominent politician who occupied several ministerial positions in the post-war period. So, late ‘50s and ‘60s.

Shaun McKenna 13:28

Oh, so he's a bit of a nepo baby then.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 13:30

Correct. But he's not the only one as you know.

Shaun McKenna 13:34

Yes, a big thing in Japanese politics. Yeah.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 13:37

So Kono, went to Keio University, but he dropped out, and then went to study at Georgetown, in Washington DC in the United States, so his English is very good — far better than the average Japanese politician. Then he worked on Alan Cranston's unsuccessful campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the 1984 U.S. presidential election when the nominee was Walter Mondale, and he lost to Republican Ronald Reagan. Then Connor went to Poland, while it was still under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and apparently he even spent a night in prison after visiting the leader of an anti-authoritarian solidarity workers movement in Poland. When he then returned to Japan, Kono spent a decade working in the private sector before being elected to office as a lower house member in 1996, and it's been reported that he believes his experiences abroad have allowed him to see Japan in a more objective way, or at least he thinks so. And Kono in the past has made headlines for deviating from party lines on certain issues such as marriage equality and nuclear energy.

Shaun McKenna 14:46

Didn't he try running for prime minister?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 14:49

Yes, so, technically, he ran for president of the LDP twice, the Liberal Democratic Party, which is generally the step before the nomination for prime minister as, you know, the LDP has all but dominated post-war Japanese politics as we all know. So he ran fairly earlier in his career in 2009, and then again during the latest presidential campaign in 2021. So Kono was still very popular among some sections of the population, but he's not as popular among members — general members — of the LDP, due to a couple of things. First, his tendency to sort of go his own way on certain issues, as I mentioned earlier, than his particular communication style, and some even see him as a bit of a prima donna. These are all traits, fairly rare in Japanese politics, I would say. But still, he has managed to land top positions such as foreign minister and the defense minister, before being put in charge of administrative and regulatory reform as the digital minister.

Shaun McKenna 15:52

So he's in charge of modernizing Japanese society. He's been particularly critical and vocal about the fact that Japan uses a lot of old fashioned ways to do things. He said that he wants to get rid of administrative tasks requiring the unnecessary use of the hanko for example, the hanko being these little stamps that people in Japan use instead of signatures. Also, a lot of these critiques Kono will often tweet them, if I recall correctly.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 16:23

You recall correctly. So Kono’s popularity was largely boosted by these rants against what he considers is Japan's failure to modernize itself, especially when it comes to the bureaucracy and administration in general, generally symbolized by hanko and fax machines. So as I said earlier, he has this ability to communicate using slogans and very direct language, which doesn't really suit the Japanese politician. But on the other hand, you know, it works perfectly on the internet. And that is what has made him very popular among netizens and the internet public. When he was appointed minister of administrative reform in 2020, he waged this battle against Japan's seal the hanko, as you all heard in a clip earlier, and the fax machines, the scale of the problem was then underscored by the pandemic, as for instance, local health centers across Japan used faxes to report the numbers of infected people.

Shaun McKenna 17:19

I remember too that during the pandemic, people weren't able to kind of completely work from home because they kept needing to go into the office to use their hanko and kind of like stamp official documents.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 17:30

Yes. And Kono’s ministry has found a myriad of these antiquated regulations, which require, you know, the hanko or faxes and, another one for you, the floppy disk

Shaun McKenna 17:43

Floppy disk! I'm not that old. How then has this effort to modernize with the My Number system affected Kono?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 17:51

Yeah, so the digital agency — it's an agency — and by extension, Kono have handled scrutiny quite poorly. So Kono has appeared very short tempered when answering questions about the malfunctions. That refers to what his critics say of him, that he often lambastes other people but then dismisses any kind of criticism towards himself. During a parliamentary meeting last month, when the opposition questioned his responsibility and handling this My Number number flareup, Kono answered very evasively, only arguing that the government will work to alleviate the public's concerns and increase the awareness of the My Number system.

Shaun McKenna 18:29

So Kishida’s poll numbers are being affected as a result of this issue. Has Kono been affected in the same way?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 18:37

So Kono’s reputation among the general public is sagging. So he used to be on the top of rankings assessing the public's favorite for the prime minister's position, but he now fell behind other less prominent politicians, let's say. And according to a poll conducted by TBS television, over 82% of respondents think that the task force that the government set up for the occasion, and that Kono heads himself, won't solve the issues that emerged

Shaun McKenna 19:05

From My Number?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 19:06

With My Number, yeah.

Shaun McKenna 19:07

Oh no! 82%!

Gabriele Ninivaggi 19:09

Yeah. And you know what, on top of that, Kono was overseas when an independent commission on the security of personal information was conducting an investigation in his digital agency. So that ruffled some feathers.

Shaun McKenna 19:22

Do you think the My Number issue is going to derail Kono efforts to modernize Japan's bureaucracy?

Gabriele Ninivaggi 19:29

So, I think that, overall, there is a general consensus that Japan cannot really afford to fall behind even more, if it wants to at least to try and stay afloat in terms of competitiveness with other economies. So regardless of all the talk and the concerns, which I think are legitimate, the arguments for digitalization outweigh those against digitalization, and that is a widely shared opinion, I would say. But on the other hand, I think that the government's efforts to entice the public and extol the virtues of digitalization have clearly been insufficient, especially considering Japan is the oldest country in the world. So the decision to merge this health insurance card and the My Number card wasn't the result of a thorough debate with the public. It just seemed a bit rushed and very top down. So from now on, I think the administrators need to fine tune their techniques and engage more with the public on this issue. So to answer your question, this recent spate of problems is not going to stop modernization. It may hurt Kono a bit, politically speaking, but the argument to digitalize has been made, and now it is really just a matter of implementation.

Shaun McKenna 20:43

Well, Gabrielle, thanks for coming back to Deep Dive and explaining this whole situation to us.

Gabriele Ninivaggi 20:48

Thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna 20:53

My thanks again to Gabriele for coming on this week's show. As we touched upon in our discussion, a government report on implementation of the My Number card was released Tuesday that outlined instances of errors causing Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to once again resolve to address public concern about digitalization. Roughly 20% of the surveyed local governments, for example, followed the wrong procedures when linking My Number with disability records, and several government services and insurers had connected health insurance cards to the wrong My Numbers of different people in more than 1,000 cases. Kishida announced the government would issue a conclusive account of the situation by November. Elsewhere in tech-related news, the United States said it is confident about sharing intelligence with Japan following fears that things might be curtailed in the wake of a Washington Post report that found Chinese hackers had infiltrated Tokyo's most sensitive defense networks in 2020. The report, citing unnamed current and former U.S. and Japanese officials, said the hackers had continued to access the classified networks for about another year through 2021 — despite appeals from American officials asking Tokyo to seal the gaps in their systems. While Tokyo eventually took steps to strengthen its networks, U.S. officials hinted that the systems remain insufficiently secure from Beijing's prying eyes. And heavy rain from tropical storm Khanun pounded southwestern Japan on Wednesday as another storm, Lan, approached Japan from the southeast. Areas of Kyushu have already been inundated with a month's worth of rainfall in the past week, according to authorities. Lan is predicted to strengthen as it moves north, possibly affecting Tokyo early next week. The storm arrives at the start of the Bon holiday period when many Tokyoites return to their hometowns for a week's holiday. Speaking of which, Deep Dive will be taking advantage of the Bon holiday period and will take the week off. We will be back with more new episodes from Aug. 23.

Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez, our interns are Christoph Loing and Himari Semans. The outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd, and our theme music is by the Japanese artist LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.