Friday, June 30, 2023

My Number, Not

Japanese Skeptical about National ID Number

By Takuya Nishimura
, Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
June 25, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point.

One of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s major domestic policy objectives has been the introduction and distribution of a national identification card called “My Number.” Although he seemed to have attained this objective when the Diet passed a bill to fold the national health insurance card into the My Number card, the rollout caused more problems than it solved.

The transition was inadequate and resulted in many errors. The public quickly began to distrust the program and blamed the government for incompetence. Kishida’s My Number campaign has the potential to be fatal to his administration.

My Number was originally introduced under the Shinzo Abe administration in 2013. It provided Japanese citizens with a 12-digit identification number to make administrative procedures such as taxation or social security efficient. Although the government distributed the number to every citizen, My Number card was not accepted as widely as the government expected.

The government hoped that My Number would be used for health insurance and drivers’ licenses. Instead, many felt these tie-ins would jeopardize their privacy. In 2020, Abe’s successor Yoshihide Suga, offered incentives to encourage acceptance. New card holders were offered 5,000 shopping points called “Maina Point” or the equivalent to ¥5,000.

Kishida began a second campaign of Maina Point last year, giving 5,000 points for obtaining the card, 7,500 points for integrating it with health insurance and 7,500 points for connection to a personal bank account. He also announced that the current health insurance card would be scrapped by the fall of 2024, integrating it with My Number card. Earlier this month, the Diet passed an amendment to the My Number Act, which expanded the utility of the card, confirmed the integration of the health insurance card with the My Number card, and established a new system to promote the linkage of the My Number with a holder’s personal bank account.

Although some operational flaws in My Number system had been reported before enactment of the amendment, several instances of the mishandling of personal data were reported after the the enactment. In the process of registering personal bank accounts in order to receive public benefits, there were many examples of incorrect linkages with family accounts. These mistakes occurred mainly when parents registered their accounts for their children, violating the rule of one account for one person. The rule makes no sense as long as young children, who are entitled to receive governmental benefits, cannot open their own bank accounts.

Despite the fact that the My Number system is a national policy, implementation was left to local governments. In some cases, personal data was registered to wrong person. Such data included medical history, the history of pension payment, and benefits for raising children or handicapped persons. As result of mishandling MyNumber accounts, some hospital patients were charged 100% for their medical bills even though such charges must normally be 30% or less by using health insurance. Unlike the ID systems in other countries, including social security numbers in the United States, according to the report of Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s My Number system is not controlled in a unified manner. Since many ministries hope to utilize My Number in their programs, they dividedly hold the citizens’ personal data for protecting privacy.

The political impact of the system errors of My Number is not small. The Digital Minister, Taro Kono, apologized for the consecutive failures in My Number registration. Kishida established a special inspection team in an effort to cool down the public opposition. Nevertheless, the Kishida government fully intends to scrap the current health insurance card and integrate it into the My Number card in the fall of 2024. Polls conducted on June 17th and 18th showed a steep decline in support for Kishida. In the Kyodo poll, support dropped by 6.2 points to 40.8%. The Asahi poll that approval had dropped by 4 percentage points to 42%. Mainichi’s poll showed a drop of 12 points to 33%. Most people, as well as most newspapers’ editorials, are demanding the cancellation or postponement of the integration plan of the health insurance card with the My Number card.

Kishida promised that he would not scrap the current health insurance card until popular anxiety about integration has eased. However, an integrated personal identification number has been a long-cherished wish of the central government. When the government considered introduction of an integrated ID number in 1970s, it faced firm opposition from the public worried about growing governmental control and the loss of the security of confidential personal information. The Democratic Party of Japan renewed discussion of the common ID number in the integrated reform of taxation and social security in early 2010’s.

My Number originated as an attempt to protect low-income families from the negative impact of consumption tax hikes under the DPJ administration. One possible solution at that time was a “tax credit with benefits,” which would have been accompanied by a common ID number. My Number has also been discussed as a method for delivering government benefits. But the unchanged hidden intention appears to be stronger and easier governmental control over the people. The government’s haste in implementing My Number has resulted in confusion and error capped by weak, gimmicky incentives. As a result, Kishida’s government looks weak with no easy way for the Prime Minister to regain public credibility for the My Number system.

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