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Rigid rules at Japan PM's office require officials to come in person for 'online' meetings

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks online to reporters assembled at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on Aug. 22, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has taken his duties online since testing positive for COVID-19, Cabinet ministers and bureaucrats meeting him virtually still must come to his office in person. Why? The Mainichi Shimbun explores the background to this odd practice.

    "In case I got infected, I had a dedicated fiberoptic conferencing system installed between the prime minister's office and the prime minister's official residence, so that I could continue performing my duties remotely," Kishida told reporters on the night of Aug. 22, at his first online press availability since catching the virus.

    The reporters were assembled in a conference room at the prime minister's office in the heart of Tokyo, while Kishida addressed them online from his official residence nearby. The setup sparked a backlash on social media, with one person commenting, "It's just too surreal," while another said, "It's so typical of Japan, a digitally underdeveloped country."

    In normal online press conferences, each reporter also goes online to pose questions to their interviewees. Yet Kishida's signature "conferencing system" apparently does not allow for this.

    Since July there has been a spate of infections among officials at the prime minister's office, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, and it was considered a matter of time before Kishida could get infected. The prime minister's office began hooking the official residence into the office's internal network around that time. After one of Kishida's executive secretaries for political affairs tested positive for the virus on Aug. 2, the fiberoptic network links were hurriedly completed.

    "We had assumed the possibility of the prime minister getting infected. We did various experiments by hooking up dedicated networks," said one prime ministerial aide.

    Kishida developed a mild fever and other symptoms on the night of Aug. 20, toward the end of his weeklong summer break, and tested positive for the coronavirus the following day. He immediately installed himself at his official residence to recuperate. As his symptoms were mild, Kishida returned to duty on Aug. 22, using the new remote connection from the residence to his office.

    However, due to security worries, these are strictly intranets, meaning they are not connected to the wider internet or even each government ministry and agency's internal network.

    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds an online meeting with International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons, second from left, during the latter's courtesy call at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on Aug. 23, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Because of this, Cabinet ministers and bureaucrats must go physically to the PM's office for online meetings with Kishida. Issues requiring briefings to the prime minister had piled up during his vacation. And since he began remote working, a stream of ministers and officials has been seen coming in and out of Kishida's office, though Kishida himself is not there.

    These visiting officials "meet" Kishida through a large monitor set up where he usually sits in his office.

    "The officials provide briefings as usual in front of the prime minister's face, which is larger than usual," explained a government insider.

    It is imperative to ensure security. However, it could be said that Cabinet and government officials needing to "show up" at the prime minister's office even for online meetings is the epitome of lagging digitization in Tokyo's Nagatacho political and Kasumigaseki bureaucratic districts.

    (Japanese original by Akira Murao, Political News Department)

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