Japan has a bizarre fascination with the fax machine

by Anna Fifield / 07 March, 2017

In the heart of high-tech Tokyo, the facsimile machine still whirrs.

I live in a country famed for its advanced ­technology, but almost every week I’m asked to send a fax. Yes, a fax. In 2017.

Two decades into the email era, the clunky old facsimile machine, with its demands for paper and toner and patience, is still a staple of Japanese daily life. The rollout of ultrafast broadband in New Zealand may potentially signal the end of the line for Kiwi fax machines, but don’t expect to see Japan following suit anytime soon.

If I want to request an ­interview in Japan with a ­company or ­government ­ministry? Please send a fax. ­RSVP-ing for a cocktail party? Please reply using the enclosed fax form. Even the trendy, Los Angeles-style salad bar near my office has a sign at the till: “Don’t want to wait in the line? Fax your order ahead.”

All offices here have fax machines, often multiple fax machines for each section, and about half of homes have them, too. But if yours is not one of them? No problem. Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores have fax machines for customers to use.

I’ve refused to get a fax machine – because it’s 2017! – and have ­survived without one just fine, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had to give in on a couple of occasions. One situation that boggled my mind: I had some questions for Japan’s biggest newspaper company, circulation 10 million. You might think a media company would be open to new technologies. Not this one. After much to-ing and fro-ing, we came to a compromise: I would fax in my questions (from the convenience store) and it would email the answers back to me. It had email, it just didn’t want to use it.

I have been trying to figure out why Japan ­continues to have this fascination with the fax. Yes, I understand that it’s more secure than email, but faxes continue to be the medium for all sorts of non-sensitive communications, such as ­telling the salad bar you want today’s special, easy on the dressing, at 12.30pm. Part of the reason the fax has endured is that Japanese has three alphabets, including one made up of thousands of Chinese-based characters, which made it a difficult language to type when ­computers were first introduced. It was much easier to write a message by hand and fax it.

Faxes are still a regular part of doing business for banks and insurance companies, partly because official documents must be stamped with a ­customer’s hanko, or personal seal. Using a fax makes that paper-based procedure easier, the theory goes.

What’s more, Japan has a rapidly ageing population – more than a third of Japanese are over 60 – and older people prefer paper or struggle to use computers.

But none of these ­explanations washes with me. Computer ­technology has advanced. It’s ­perfectly possible to type Japanese now, and email attachments can be printed and stamped. Maybe seniors still want to fax their orders to the supermarket, but why the trendy salad bar? Or the newspaper ­company that has email?

Some business analysts have pointed to the country’s enduring attachment to the fax as a sign of a broader problem: corporate and ­official Japan cannot change, and that’s why the economy has been stuck in a rut for two decades, despite the Government’s attempts to ­innovate and deregulate its way out of stagnation.

I think they might be onto ­something. Please, Japan, can you dump those fax machines in the ­recycling bin and just email me?

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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