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Japan gov't may turn to YouTubers to promote 'My Number' ID cards

A screenshot of a video shows popular Japanese YouTuber Kazu introducing how to apply for a "My Number" personal identification card in 2017.
Illustrations of "My Number" personal identification cards are seen in an image provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
A screenshot of a YouTube video shows Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officials appearing on their official "BUZZ MAFF" channel.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is considering appointing YouTubers to promote widespread use of the controversial "My Number" personal identification cards.

    Though the government aims to boost the ratio of Japan's population holding the ID card to 100% by the end of fiscal 2022, the figure currently stands at only around 20%. The strategy is to use YouTubers to prompt young people, who especially have a low holder ratio, to apply for the tax and social security ID card.

    The Cabinet Office in October announced open competitive tendering to decide on who will carry out tasks to publicize and promote the My Number system. In an unusual move, the government included YouTubers in its bidding for "Work related to using talents, internet advertisements and other tools to publicize the My Number system." Which YouTuber will be appointed remains undecided.

    The My Number card contains a 12-digit ID number and an individual's name and current address, which can be used in procedures such as paying taxes. The card is issued to people who apply for it. Pushing forward with digitalization has become an urgent task due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

    Immediately after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assumed office in September, he said, "The key to the digitalization of administrative work is My Number cards." The government is also considering having the system linked to an individual's savings and deposit account information.

    To publicize the system, the government has inserted advertisements in newspapers and used digital signage to stream commercials at stations and in the streets, among other methods. However, it has not received as many applications as anticipated, and now places a big hope on the YouTubers' power to transmit information.

    The choice is also apparently because labor costs are not as high as appointing nationally popular actors, celebrities and other public figures. Moreover, the Japanese government, by eradicating its image of stubborn bureaucracy and having people watch videos on YouTube without reserve, aspires to remove anxiety and concerns about possible personal information leaks that accompany the My Number system.

    A Cabinet Office representative said, "Time can be taken to explain (the system) in videos. I hope they can publicize the (My Number) program efficiently to Japanese people."

    In a surprise move in 2017, the Japanese government appointed popular YouTuber Kazu to introduce basic knowledge of the ID cards and the application method. "Did you know that the notification card (delivered to your home) isn't the actual My Number card?" Kazu asked his audience in the video that garnered over 240,000 views. However, it did not contribute much to an increase in the number of applications, apparently because the video at the time could not effectively explain the benefits of having the ID cards.

    Besides the Cabinet Office, other ministries and agencies have started making efforts to use YouTubers to boost government publicity. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is operating the "BUZZ MAFF" channel, labeling the cast as the first bureaucratic YouTubers from Tokyo's Kasumigaseki area. The channel has garnered about 57,000 subscribers and a total of around 5.5 million views since it was launched in November 2019.

    The channel started after then agriculture minister Taku Eto deemed it problematic that the ministry's public relations activities were not attracting young people's attention. In April this year, a video showing Eto talking about the coronavirus state of emergency dubbed by officials speaking in their own regional dialects became popular, and garnered around 210,000 views.

    Last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited YouTuber Masuo -- who has about 1.17 million subscribers -- to an event on the sidelines of a G20 Climate Sustainability Working Group meeting held in Tokyo. A video streaming Masuo debating climate change issues with ministry officials and others went viral on YouTube.

    The government received roughly 10,000 My Number card applications per day in fiscal 2019, but now receives about 70,000 applications daily. However, the ID cards had been issued to only 27.77 million people, or 21.8% of the total population, as of Nov. 1. Though the ratio of holders is relatively high among people in their 60s and 70s, only some 10% of those aged between 10 and 29 have obtained the cards.

    At issue is how the government can convey the merits of holding a My Number card. The government is poised to integrate various functions by allowing patients to use the My Number cards in place of health insurance cards at medical institutions starting March 2021. It also plans to embed driver's license information in the My Number card's integrated circuit chip in 2026 at the earliest. How much the government can convince people of the benefits of having a My Number card by working with YouTubers is called into question.

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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