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Japan passes laws to set up digital policy agency in September

Exposed by COVID, Suga intends to speed up government digitization

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Digital Transformation Minister Takuya Hirai confer during an upper house committee session on May 11. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's parliament on Wednesday enacted a set of laws to establish a new government agency in September as the country aims to ramp up its digitization.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government hopes to accelerate the digitization of the central and local governments to improve the quality of services after the novel coronavirus pandemic exposed challenges caused by a delay in the initiatives.

Under the digitization legislation that was enacted in the upper house plenary session, Japan will revamp computer systems at the central and local governments and introduce common nationwide rules to protect personal information.

It will also be tasked with taking privacy protection measures as the legislation will boost the exchange of personal information, in a move that could cause data leakage and other risks.

The Suga government has, since its launch last September, placed a high priority on digital reforms, as Japan has long been struggling to promote administrative reforms by utilizing information technology, despite having aimed at improvements since around 2000.

Under the digital agency law, which also seeks to promote digitization in the private sector, the prime minister will appoint a Cabinet minister overseeing the body and a top administrative official, likely to be chosen from the private sector.

The agency plans to have roughly 500 officials, of whom around 120, including IT engineers, are expected to be recruited from the business industry.

Under the legislation, the government will do away with "hanko" seals on official documents and allow digital data to be used instead of paper documents.

Both hanko seals and paper documents have long been regarded as important parts of the country's working or administrative culture, but they are now viewed as a major factor delaying digitization.

Local governments will be obliged to introduce computer systems that meet central government standards to facilitate communication between them and enhance the efficacy of public services provision.

The government was criticized for a delay in delivering a one-off cash-handout worth 100,000 yen ($920) per individual last year as a way to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on households.

The new entity will promote the "My Number" personal identification system, currently under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, so that it can be utilized in such occasions.

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