The Japanese government is ramping up efforts to narrow the digital divide between the young and elderly, as the rapid digitalization of society continues to highlight the urgent need to address intergenerational gaps.

With some 20 million senior citizens estimated to be unfamiliar with how to operate smartphones and other digital devices, the government has been offering people assistance by holding classes in collaboration with mobile phone companies. But such initiatives have only attracted people already eager to learn new digital skills.

According to a public opinion survey on smartphone usage conducted by the government in 2020, less than 10 percent of those between the age of 18 to 59 responded that they "hardly use" or "do not use" such devices.

A class teaching the elderly how to use smartphones is held by NTT Docomo Inc. at one of its stores in Tokyo in April 2023. (Kyodo)

In contrast, the percentage of those saying they hardly use their smartphones rose substantially for older generations, standing at 25.7 percent of those aged 60 to 69, and 57.9 percent of those aged 70 and above.

At a smartphone education class run privately by NTT Docomo Inc. at its store in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward in April, the instructor showed a photo of a large white dog to two elderly men and explained how to use an image search application via the camera function.

The participants were encouraged to take photos and use the app to identify the dog's breed. One of them expressed his eagerness to learn, saying, "It is inconvenient nowadays if you cannot use a smartphone. I want to improve my skills."

NTT Docomo's smartphone classes have been attended more than 15 million times since their launch in 2018. The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has also outsourced running the training sessions to mobile phone firms and others since 2021 to teach people how to apply for "My Number" national identification cards.

But there has been a struggle to encourage those with little interest in improving their digital skills to attend. "It's difficult to reach many other elderly people, who do not participate," said an NTT Docomo official.

Starting from fiscal 2021, the ministry has set a five-year goal of providing training to 10 million people through the sessions, aiming to reach half the estimated number of people unfamiliar with digital devices.

The number of participants stood at 250,000 in fiscal 2021 and jumped more than twofold the following year, but the figure remains far from the ministry's target.

As part of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's national digitalization strategy, the government aimed in fiscal 2022 to secure more than 20,000 people in local areas familiar with digital devices to teach other residents how to operate them.

More than 26,000 people have already registered, and the government is aiming for 50,000 supporters by fiscal 2027.

Tetsuya Toyoda, a researcher at Oricom Digital Divide Solutions, a private institution seeking to bridge the digital divide, said digital technology is taken for granted by the younger generations, who lack an awareness of existing disparities.

"The government, companies, and every citizen first need to recognize the problem and make efforts to resolve it," Toyoda said.

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