Why Japan’s Love for Fax Machines Just Won’t Die

Why Japan’s Love for Fax Machines Just Won’t Die

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Fax machines in Japan
Picture: piyaphunjun / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It's not the only country that clings to the tech. But killing the fax machine in Japan has proven harder than some would have hoped.

Earlier in 2021, NHK wanted to spur national unity behind Japanese participants in the Tokyo Olympics. So it exhorted its viewers to send messages of support to Team Japan…using their fax machines.

The international response was swift and derisive. Those who’d never lived in Japan expressed incredulity that such a “high-tech” country still used 1980s technology. Former and current residents just laughed. For them, it was all par for the course[1].

To be fair, it’s not like the fax machine has died worldwide. Many companies in the US still support a fax line. But it’s rarely a company’s primary form of communication. Often, it’s used as a method of last resort for secure document transmission. What explains the device’s seeming popularity in Japan?

High Tech and the Cyberpunk Legacy

Cyberpunk has cemented in many people's minds a strong correlation between "Japan" and "the future". Meanwhile, in reality, fans are still faxing Olympians. Share on X

Japan’s reputation as a high-tech society isn’t without foundation. The country is home to some of the world’s most dominant electronics companies. And depopulation concerns continue to drive innovation in several areas. Japan has made major strides in robotics as it looks to automatons to care for its aging population. And I discussed a while back how airlines were exploring assistive technology to compensate for the country’s labor shortage.

But for every “high-tech Japan” story, there’s also evidence that the country is still stuck in the Edo era. Most legal documents still require manual hanko seals to certify them. The banking system, many say, is inconvenient and antiquated. And the country has lagged behind other Asian countries in adapting cashless technologies.

Picture: IGDB

To be fair, Japan’s government is well aware of these issues. The cabinet’s Digital Office is spearheading multiple initiatives to move the country forward. This includes shifting to digitized hanko seals and offering rebates as incentives to make cashless payments.

But what explains this delta between the perception of “high-tech Japan” and reality?

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Personally, I see this stemming from the “Japan Panic” in the US in the 1980s. The fear that Japan would “take over” the world economy gave birth to the cyberpunk genre. Cyberpunk settings generally paint Japan as a high-tech utopia whose corporate conglomerates are consuming the world.

Cyberpunk has cemented in many people’s minds a strong correlation between “Japan” and “the future”. Meanwhile, in reality, fans are still faxing Olympians.

Fax Machines: More Prevalent Than Video Game Consoles

Just how prevalent are fax machines? Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications ran a study in 2020 to find out. The result? 33.6% of Japanese households have a fax machine[2].

Now, that’s not quite as many households that have a tablet. Some 38.7% of Japanese households have a tablet. However, only 29.8% of households have a gaming console. That’s right – Japan has more fax machines than gaming consoles.

However, there’s a huge age gap at work here. According to the 2016 version of the same study, people in their 50s own a full 48% of those fax machines. Among 20-somethings, a minuscule 1.9% confess to having a fax.

What keeps the fax alive? Reporter Okada Yuka says that, for many people, it’s a force of habit. They have one because they’ve always had one. For others, it’s a necessity. Some order forms for personal use and business require them to own fax machines. And elementary schools, government offices, and hospitals will often only communicate by fax. (E.g., many elementary schools still send notices of absence via fax.)

Not Just Japan

The rate of personal fax machine ownership in Japan is pretty jaw-dropping. However, it isn’t the only country with a heavy fax dependency.

According to an IDC report from 2017, 43% of businesses worldwide used faxes. That represented an increase from previous years. Share on X

In the United States, medical providers, in particular, are still addicted to this ancient technology. Experts estimate that some 75% of medical communications still occur via fax[3]. Some have even blamed the ubiquity of faxing for slowing down America’s response to the COVID-19 crisis[4].

Why do faxes still cling to life? As Sophi Haigney explains in The Atlantic, in the case of hospitals, it goes back to America’s medical privacy laws. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) lays out several strictures for protecting patient privacy. The law explicitly mentions faxing as a secure means of sending patient communication. Some providers interpret this to mean they must use faxes and not other, more up-to-date technology. Others keep it because it’s perceived as secure, or simply because it’s what they’ve always used.

And America isn’t the only country where faxing still reigns. According to an IDC report in 2017, 43% of businesses worldwide used faxes. That represented an increase from previous years[5].

Towards a Faxless Future in Business?

Many Japanese business people express shock after working abroad and realizing how little faxing is a part of daily corporate life. Share on X

That said, outside of areas such as law and health care, fax machines in the US don’t get the same workout they do in Japan. Many Japanese business people express shock after working abroad for a while. It doesn’t take long for them to realize how little faxing is a part of daily corporate life.

There are other reasons that faxing sticks around in Japan. Writing in ITMedia Business, Yamada Toshihiro argues that, for small- and medium-sized businesses, cost is a factor. Digitizing an entire business can be expensive. By contrast, buying some fax machines is relatively cheap.

Yamada also argues that faxing sticks around because many in Japan are still accustomed to handwriting. Many people will include handwritten notes – and even drawings – in their communications as a way of showing thanks or gratitude. Compared to this, some see digital communication as cold and impersonal.

Despite having some benefits, the simple truth is that faxing doesn’t scale. Yamada notes how some medical facilities in Texas found themselves overwhelmed with faxes when the COVID-19 crisis reached a fever pitch.

A “Late” Move to Digital?

Fax machine
Picture: Kana Design Image / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Given this, it’s no surprise that Japan’s government wants the country to quit its faxing habit. Kono Taro, the government’s minister for administrative and regulatory reform, recently declared that Japan’s government would abolish faxing and switch to electronic communications, such as e-mail. However, the announcement ignited a firestorm of protest[6]. Reps from government agencies filed over 400 objections over the change. (It’s unclear whether they faxed them.)

The announcement is part of a larger government initiative to bring Japan into the digital 21st century. In September, the government created a new office, the Digital Office. Its goal: bring central and regional governments into the digital age.

It couldn’t come soon enough. And, according to many in Japan, it should’ve come much sooner. In a survey by Oricon News, 80% of respondents said that Japan’s push for digitization was late or somewhat late[7]. Respondents said that they wanted to see Japan match other countries in the move to a paperless, cashless, work-from-home society.

(By the way: the one technological advance people in Japan want the most? Digital voting – a technology that the government had discussed implementing before the COVID-19 crisis but abandoned due to security concerns.)

On the plus side, Japan’s government now seems intent on bringing the country fully into the digital age. Even if it has to drag it there, kicking and screaming. Which, actually, seems like exactly how it’s gonna go down.

How Cyberpunk 2077 Resurrects the 1980’s “Japan Panic”

Sources

[1] 2021年になって未だに?」 NHKきっかけに日本のFAX文化が世界に 海外からは驚きの声. Blogos

[2] まだまだ現役!家庭のFAX 普及率はTVゲーム機より高い その使い道は…令和の“最新FAX事情”. Yahoo! News JP

[3] The Fax is Not Yet Obsolete. The Atlantic

[4] One culprit in America’s slow coronavirus response: Fax machines. Advisory Board

[5] まだまだ世界で人気? いまだに「FAX」を使い続けるワケ. ITmedia Business

[6] 河野行革相「ファクス廃止」に霞が関が猛反撃 「そんなアナグロでデジタル化ができるのか!」J-Cast

[7] 日本のデジタル化、8割超が「遅れ感じる」と回答 進んでほしいもの1位は「選挙のネット投票」. Oricon News

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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