The digital minister wants to tear Japan out of the analog doldrums

TOKYO – The politician tasked with helping Japan keep up with the digital age has a busy schedule.

After all, the nation known for Nintendo games, Lexus sports cars and other gadgets galore also loves the fax machine and the traditional “Hanko” seals that work as analogue signatures.

But Digital Minister Taro Kono has a reputation for acting in a no-nonsense manner and defying high-level interests.

“I have no intention of playing coordinator,” he told reporters in a small briefing conveniently conducted online on Friday.

“If people don’t listen, I’ll beat them up,” he added, laughing.

In 2021, Japan ranked 28th out of 64 nations in the world, according to a study by IMD, an independent academic organization based in Switzerland that examined how well-equipped nations are to embrace and embrace technological development digital competitiveness, which has hardly changed compared to five years for the future. The US was #1, China #15.

Kono, a former secretary of state and defense, has been flaunting his digital expertise for years.

Kono’s Japanese Twitter account, which has attracted 2.5 million followers, features everything from a bowling video to political commentary. Fluent in English, he attended Georgetown University and also has an English Twitter account with 70,000 followers.

In a YouTube video last month, he urged people to get a My Number Card, a digital ID card for Japanese citizens and residents to use for online government applications and link to a driver’s license, library card or online banking .

But Kono knows it will take more than social media stars to lift Japan out of its analog doldrums. He noted that the endeavor need not be complicated; People will naturally choose what is comfortable.

“Even a child knows that a seal doesn’t really work as a personal identification,” he said, adding that he loves Japanese seals as crafts.

“There’s a mindset that it’s someone else’s problem,” he said of society’s complacency.

During the coronavirus pandemic, as remote work spread across the world, the Japanese realized how far they had fallen behind, Kono said.

The Digital Agency was founded in Japan last year to promote competitiveness in digital technology.

A certain skepticism remains. Critics say the idea of ​​”digital transformation” is already outdated and only Japan talks about it that much anymore.

In 2018, Cybersecurity Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada became the target of ridicule for not knowing what a USB port was.

However, tech pundits have high hopes for what Kono could achieve. Kono has always stood out among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers. His father was a prominent lawmaker who was known as an outsider. His grandfather was also a legendary politician.

And rocking the boat is what Kono has to do.

His agency has led by example, becoming more open and diverse, and bringing in people from the private sector and other walks of life who might have ideas about the changes Japan so desperately needs.

What will his measure of success be? “When there’s a smile everywhere,” Kono said.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter

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Sarah Y. Kim

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