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Why does Japan's 2020 Census ask for your workplace and which floor you live on?

This photo shows 2020 Census documents that arrived at the reporter's home, including a brochure and return envelope for posted responses, on Oct. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuka Obuno)

TOKYO -- With Oct. 7 the deadline for completing Japan's 2020 Census, people who completed it may have questions about why they had to provide information such as the name of their workplace and what floor of their apartment building they live on. The Mainichi Shimbun approached the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications for comment.

    Online responses opened on Sept. 14, and postal responses started being accepted on Oct. 1, and the deadline for both was Oct. 7.

    The 2020 Census was delivered to households in a bluish envelope. Its form asks people to respond to 16 questions ranging from how many people are in their household to the type of housing they live in, among other fields.

    I answered the census online and it only took about 10 minutes. I filled in my name and nationality, whether I was employed or self-employed and other information without any qualms, but when it came to inputting my place of work, I wondered why I had to. And it wasn't only the company name, but the name of the branch office, sales office and other detailed information. I wondered whether there was really a need to supply all the information, and hesitated.

    The 16-page brochure on how to fill in the answers said that people's jobs were classified into about 250 industries and some 230 professions. But that information alone didn't provide an answer, so I asked a representative from the ministry's Population Census Division.

    "The names of the work categories that are recognized in society don't always match the administrative industry classifications," the official explained. They continued, "For example, people running electronics shops commonly answer that they are in the electricity business, but from a statistics standpoint, they are classified as retailers. The electricity business refers to companies like TEPCO that generate power. So by seeing the person write that they manage such and such an electronics store, we can smoothly classify their business."

    But is there really a need to go so far as to gather even the names of companies people work for?

    The representative responded, "The name of a person's workplace is merely used for classification purposes, and is deleted after that. It doesn't remain as data in government statistics."

    The census guide does in fact state that the information is used for accurate classification and that the information is not compiled into statistics. But there is no mention that it will be deleted later. As such, the information in the guide is probably not sufficient enough for people to think, "All right, I'll write it in."

    Another question is that if people share their place of work, how is that information reflected in government policy?

    The answer I received was that it becomes "basic data for government policies for achieving employment stability and regional revitalization." When I asked for more concrete terms, the response was, "We're not aware of all the details, but it is used in the policies of prefectural and municipal governments."

    There were other parts of the census that caught my eye. One was a question on housing and which floor respondents live on. I wondered, is this really necessary?

    The representative responded, "This is just an example, but sometimes many older people live on the higher floors of apartment buildings. During a disaster, elevators stop working, so there's a need to plan how they will be evacuated. When the central government and local bodies form disaster prevention plans, it becomes important data for locating households with elderly people living on high floors of apartment buildings and deciding how to guide them to evacuate."

    This is easy to understand. I see the need, but it was not until I approached the division that I found this out. This is not mentioned at all in the information posted to people, and it would be difficult for the average person to guess this as the reason.

    This poster informs people of the first census conducted in 1920, telling people to write their answers honestly and as they are, at the Statistical Museum at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, in this Oct. 1, 2020 photo. (Mainichi/Yuka Obuno)

    The national census is based on the Statistics Act, so members of the public have an obligation to answer them. But there may be times when people don't know what to answer and why they have to respond to a particular question.

    As of Oct. 1, the response rate for the census stood at 36.2%, 7 percentage points lower than at the same time during the census period five years ago. In a news conference on Oct. 2, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Ryota Takeda said he hoped that as many people as possible would respond in the remaining time.

    Perhaps a lack of explanation is one reason for the lower response rate.

    Masao Matsumoto, a professor at the Saitama University Social Survey Research Center who is well versed in statistical research, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I think there are many people who want to cooperate with the census but are hesitant because they don't really understand the necessity of it. The more mistrust and dissatisfaction toward the census escalate, the more it becomes impossible to obtain correct responses, which will affect the accuracy of the survey. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications must provide a more easily understood explanation (of the census)."

    Still, Matsumoto emphasized the importance of the national census. "Even if members of the public cooperate with the census, they are unlikely to feel any direct benefits from it. But if the census collection rate goes down, so does confidence in the statistics. This degrades the quality of the data as a foundation for setting policies. In other words, the demerits of low collection rates do affect the public," he said.

    Matsumoto also pointed to the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic as a major reason why the rate at which the public is participating in the census is low this time. "I'm under the impression the census hasn't really reached the public consciousness, as it's been buried underneath the coronavirus pandemic and the changing of the prime minister, among other numerous news items."

    The first census in Japan was conducted in 1920. Since then, census workers who meet members of the public face to face and communicate to them the importance of the census have played a major role in the rate at which answers have been collected. This time, the government was aiming to have around 700,000 census workers, similar to the previous census, but a spate of people backed out due to the spread of the coronavirus. Because of this, the government was only able to secure about 610,000 census workers. Until now, census workers had made up for the lack of explanation on what the census is for with home visits, but that's not the case this year.

    Due to greater sensitivity toward the protection of one's own privacy, many households do not answer the door even when they are home. To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has adopted the method of talking through the intercom to explain the importance of the census and posting the census forms in the mailboxes. Still, an official at the ministry lamented, "Those methods cannot take the part of meeting someone face to face."

    (Japanese original by Yuka Obuno, Integrated Digital News Center)

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