TOKYO >> After being tapped as administrative reform minister, Taro Kono has wasted little time in waging war on emblems of Japan’s bureaucratic red tape: first, hanko (personal seals), and now, the fax machine.
Streamlining administrative work and shifting toward digitization are among the much-hyped pledges tied to the aspirations of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s fledgling administration.
Kono said his ongoing crusade against hanko — which is often cited as a factor fueling municipal paperwork in Japan — will go a long way toward phasing out the nation’s entrenched fixation on faxes, another low-tech practice hampering efforts to go paperless.
Hanko is a personal stamped seal commonly used for authentication in a range of public documents.
“I don’t think there are many administrative procedures that actually require printing out paper and faxing,” Kono said last month.
“Why do we need to print out paper? In many cases, that’s simply because the hanko stamp is required. So if we can put a stop to that culture, it will naturally remove the need for printouts and faxing.”
According to the Information Technology Cooperative, more than 95% of businesses currently use fax machines. Meanwhile, household use fell to 34%, according to an internal affairs ministry survey.
In most cases, hanko are manually stamped, and the practice has come under intense scrutiny this year after thousands of employees were required to go into workplaces during the pandemic to stamp documents.
Kono acknowledged that some official paperwork may require hanko, but he insisted that its common practice be phased out.
A day after his appointment, Kono, who has 2 million Twitter followers, announced the launch of an anti-red tape hotline and encouraged the public to tip him off about bureaucratic inefficiency. His request resulted in thousands of messages to his website, and the hotline was shut down just a day later.
Kono’s war on hanko and fax machines resonates with Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, a forward- thinking leader who is the son of a former prime minister. Koizumi made waves last year when he took paternity leave, a highly unusual move for a Japanese man.
A few weeks ago, Koizumi’s ministry cut the requirement of hanko for some paperwork, including the application form for parental leave.
“We have a special hanko seal that only the minister is permitted to use, and my staffers sometimes come up to my room just so they can ask me to stamp documents,” Koizumi said. “It’s just too inefficient.”
Reiterating Suga’s slogan of “not being constrained by precedent,” Koizumi said he was eager to rethink hanko requirements, with a view toward “swiftly abolishing” them.
Despite his calls for freeing administrative procedures of hanko, Kono emphasizes his campaign isn’t intent on eradicating the culture of the hanko tradition.
“The culture of hanko is something long ingrained in our nation,” the minister said, referring to its time-honored use as an ownership mark for books and sealing wax for envelopes. “I hope that many people will take this opportunity to stop to reflect anew on the hanko culture that we have.”