Japan has always caught the imagination of Westerners throughout the ages as a place of exoticism and mystical wisdom. More recently, after its post-war massive industrialization and economic boom, the land of the rising sun has become synonymous with a kind of techno-utopia. Its low-crime, neon-lit urban life serving as inspiration for what the future might look like. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for instance, was obviously modeled after Tokyo, as are several other cyberpunk worlds.
But for a country crisscrossed by bullet trains, packed with glass skyscrapers, and filled with high-end robots, Japan is remarkably clinging to the fax machine, a technology that has been obsolete in the West for years.
The hallmark of the 1980s office era, the fax machine is still a central pillar of Japanese communication in both corporate and government environments. And by all accounts, this antiqued mode of communication is there to stay for years to come, despite notable efforts to scrape fax in favor of digital technology.
Fax machines have obviously been a nuisance during the pandemic. Even though many Japanese employees were allowed to work from home in order to slow down the spread of the virus, whenever an important document had to be sent to another branch or tax forms filled, they had to return to the office to send and receive faxes. Even online fax is still subpar compared to other solutions available today. No matter how you put it, dealing with faxes is still a hassle — whether it’s in Japan or another country.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet hasn’t been sitting watching this absurd situation unfold idly. As part of a nationwide push for all government bodies to go fully digital, the administration formed an “anti-fax reform” cabinet tasked with banishing the fax machine from Tokyo’s bureaucratic district of Kasumigaseki, as a start. But this common-sense policy has been met with surprising backlash.
Hundreds of government offices banded together, arguing that it would be “impossible” to replace the fax machine. According to the local newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun, banning faxes poses serious security risks and causes “anxiety over the communication environment,” it quoted pro-fax officer clerks saying.
That’s an odd thing to say when there are obviously much faster and arguably more secure means of modern communication like e-mail and encrypted instant messaging. But in order to understand Japan’s seemingly irrational reticence to abolish an outdated technology, we need to view the situation through a cultural lens.
In Japan, instead of a signature, people and businesses use a personalized hanko seal. This centuries-old tradition, which was first introduced from China and initially limited only to nobility, is still widely in use for signing contracts, business transactions, and various crucial administration procedures such as enrolling in the national pension program.
There are three main types of such hanko seals used by the Japanese people in everyday life: a seal registered with the municipal authorities used to make binding contracts; a seal registered with a bank for payments; and an all-purpose hanko with no legal purpose.
During one government review, officials cataloged almost 15,000 occasions when the only way to satisfy Japan’s fastidious bureaucracy was using a hanko seal.
The government’s latest crackdown on hanko seals, set on a backdrop of lockdowns and teleworking environments due to the pandemic, targeted 785 different types of bureaucratic procedures that require the stamp, or 96% of the total.
A lot of progress has been made in abolishing the hanko in many key government institutions, universities, and large corporations. But despite progress in digitalization, there are still many areas that are hesitant in embracing a paperless bureaucracy.
While more than 75% of executives at small and medium-sized Japanese businesses replied to a survey last year saying they were in favor of abolishing hanko seals, more than half added that it would be nevertheless difficult to end the practice.
As such, there are still many ministries and agencies that still use faxes when handling highly confidential information. This includes courts and the police, which fear that online communication is more prone to security lapses.
It’s a rather absurd situation. The fate of fax is, of course, sealed. Japan will eventually abolish the fax altogether but before their final divorce, it seems fax printers have at least a couple more years of ink left in them.
If anything, this serves as a reminder that even super-advanced technophilic societies suffer from the same biases and drawbacks that people elsewhere in the world share. Perhaps it is time to destroy your idols.