Can Japan’s Digital Agency overcome a lacklustre start and transform a nation?

Ross Hall

September 6, 2021

Japan’s digital agency has launched to much fanfare. The agency is tasked with transforming the country’s archaic bureaucracy into a streamline, fit-for-the-21st-century administration. It should make participating in society and doing business far easier than the current world of paper and hanko stamps.

An uninspiring birth.

The launch was less than inspiring. Digital is renowned for being bright and energetic. The press conference was a dry, dull and dreary affair. It wasn’t helped by the distinct lack of digital inclusion. No fancy launch for this digital agency: the minister held up a card with a text logo, looking distinctly 20th Century in the process.

Then there’s the website. Set aside the drab design and inconsistencies: it fails the most basic of accessibility requirements. Turn off Javascript and the site vanishes. They’ve failed the first test they set for themselves. Little wonder the agency came in for a roasting on Twitter, with jokey comparisons between the agency, fax machines and 1980s anime.

The www.digital.go.jp website with JavaScript switched on (left) and off (right).

[W]e will work on accessibility (correcting disparities in mental and physical conditions such as age, disability, geographical and economic constraints, etc.). – Japan’s Digital Agency UX Principles.

Digital Agency of Japan’s Principles.

Removing the fax machine

Perhaps if Japan was leading the field these missteps could be forgiven. Only they aren’t. The country is playing catch-up with digitally advanced competitors like the UK, Korea, Estonia and Singapore. There are Governmental digital agencies around the globe balancing the need to spend public money carefully and delivering world-class experiences. Japan’s gives the impression of being held together with string and fax machines.

There are parts of the Japanese digital landscape that are genuinely useful. I can prove my identity far easier here than I could in the UK. If I need paper documents, I can get many of them from my corner shop.

Yet the online experience is patchy, disconnected and confusing. Add in my status as an immigrant and access becomes even more disjointed. Perhaps unsurprising given the multitude of disparate systems that form Government bureaucracy and the powerbases undoubtably reluctant to hand over control.

The Joi Factor

Earlier in the year, as the agency was being put together, it appeared the Government was serious about innovation. Rumours circulated Jochi “Joi” Ito, the former director of MIT Media Lab and serial entrepreneur, was being tapped to join as a director. While a troubling choice given his connections to Epstein, it suggested there was a desire for aggressive digital change. He was dropped in the middle of August.

His replacement, announced days after Ito being dropped, is ex-McKinsey, a consultant on business management and director at a cosmetics company. No doubt Ishikura Yoko has significant competence in business management and strategy, but I can’t see anything to suggest she has contributed to digital transformations, let alone be a digital native. (At the time of writing, her website has been put in “maintenance mode” after she was found using copyrighted materials without permission).

Screenshot from Isikura Yoko’s website in Maintenance mode while copyright issues are resolved. (Screenshot: 2021/09/06)

A new era of revolving door leadership?

The digital launch has come at an uncertain time for Japan. Prime Minister Suga’s failure to manage Covid has cost him support and his job. The ruling LDP is gearing up for a leadership contest which will prove divisive. Some of those who could stand appear to be traditional conservatives, not as enamored with a digital future as the outgoing leader appears to be. Then a general election will follow, and there are signs the LDP isn’t guaranteed to retain power. Add all these factors together and within a few weeks of being formed, there could be a new leader and focus for the fledgling agency.

Japan must change to tackle the difficulties in its society and economy. Digital transformation will certainly help government become more productive and efficient, and cope with the inevitable decline in its workforce. What’s been an inauspicious start must be turned around, and clear leadership supported to drive these changes through.

I'm Ross, a digital editorial designer and content creator from the UK now living in Japan. I help growing companies plan, source, produce and promote a range of content. Find out more

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