A newly established digital agency was unveiled in Japan on 1 September 2021. The agency, located in an Akasaka skyscraper, is unprecedented in every way. Under the direct supervision of the prime minister, with 120 of its 500 officials hired from the private sector, the new agency has the authority to manage IT system budgets across Japanese government ministries.
Compared with many of its Western peers, Japan has managed the COVID-19 crisis relatively well given its population size and ageing population. But there was one critical aspect of outbreak management in which Japan failed: the effective use of data and technology. In July 2020, then health minister Katsunobu Kato lamented that the greatest challenge in responding to the COVID-19 crisis was the ‘delay in digital transformation’. Creating the agency was one of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s key policy pledges from day one of his administration. It was designed to overcome ‘the defeat in the digital war’. The new digital agency carries the heavy burden of wiping away the stain of this failure.
For many countries, technology plays an essential part in fighting the pandemic. In Japan, technology has been a weakness, not a strength. COVID-19 response experts from Japan’s health ministry faced difficulties collecting accurate and real-time data, such as the number of cases and vacant hospital beds. Precious time and resources were used to confirm numbers with local authorities by telephone and manually input data into computers.
Fax machines were used to exchange hand-written information among medical institutions, regional public-health centres and local governments. Japanese local governments spent months delivering cash grants to their citizens while developed countries such as Germany, South Korea and the United States swiftly — sometimes in a matter of days — completed payments using digital platforms.