Japan's continuing love affair with the fax machine

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Periodically, someone will write an article about how the Japanese still are inordinately fond of fax machines, such as this one b from the BBC News "Technology of Fiction" section:

Not a word about kanji.

I asked about a dozen Japanese friends and colleagues why their compatriots still favor the fax machine so heavily, and not one of them mentioned Chinese characters.  All their answers were similar to those given in the BBC article:  the relatively small scale of much Japanese business; limited amount of server space; apprehension about new software; remorseless conservativeness; and so on.

However, one of the students in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" course, who called this article to my attention, was able to read between the lines.  She commented:

With regard to fax machines, I know that in the past they helped to solve some of the problems with information processing of East Asian sinographic scripts. I did not realize that this inefficient technology was still depended on so heavily in Japan.

"Yoji Otokozawa, president of Tokyo-based IT consultants Interarrows, says Japan Inc. is poor in digital literacy because small businesses, not multinationals, rule the country."

I wasn't sure if this "poor digital literacy" meant that they were unable (unwilling?) to use romaji (or other input methods) to type characters. Why do they still depend on fax machines to send information? The article doesn't directly mention issues with script, and I am not too familiar with Japanese, but I was wondering how script might play a role in this conservatism.

Already in 1987, in his The Fifth Generation Fallacy (Oxford University Press), J. Marshall Unger presciently explained why Japan pounced on the fax machine, and would stick with it (Negroponte at MIT figured it out later on his own).  As Unger wrote to me in an e-mail, "It's the writing system, of course."


  1. tudza said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

    Well, the writing system and faxing hand drawn maps so people can actually find you.

  2. Jon W said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 9:00 am

    But the "it's the writing system" answer was more obvious in 1987 than it is today. The natural substitute for the fax machine is email, and software long ago made it easy to write email using kanji. Indeed, the phenomenon of character amnesia suggests that it's easier to write email using kanji than it is to write the message out longhand and then fax it. So exactly what role is the writing system playing here?

  3. Peter S. said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:22 am

    To add to what tudza said, street addresses don't work in Tokyo (the buildings are numbered more or less randomly) so that when you want to get someplace, you use a map that shows how to get there from the nearest subway stations.

  4. Robert Coren said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    @Peter S.: I was once told — I don't know with hat accuracy — that the random-seeming ordering of house numbers in Tokyo is actually a reflection of the order in which the houses were built. And I did observe on my visit to the city in ca. 1990 that if you asked a passerby for directions to some address, they would generally sketch you a map.

  5. Mr Punch said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    I remember being told, back in the '80s, that the Japanese had worked to perfect the fax machine (which had existed in primitive form for some time) not because of the writing system per se, but because of the prestige value of skill in calligraphy.

  6. bratschegirl said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 3:20 pm

    I suspect that this is of little to no relevance to the topic, but I continue to be amazed at the persistence of fax machines here in the US in the medical arena. Apparently it's a violation of HIPAA to transmit confidential medical records by email, which requires a password to access (assuming the recipient's account isn't simply left open), but perfectly permissible and in fact deemed preferable to transmit those same records via fax, which renders their content visible to anyone who walks by the receiving machine. Technology outpacing law; what else is new?

  7. Jon W said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

    I make it to Japan every couple of years (and welcome correction from somebody who actually lives there), but my sense is that people in Japan don't much sketch maps anymore, because they don't have to; folks just check Google Maps or similar software.

  8. Sid Smith said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    @Jon W
    My wife is Japanese so I go there every couple of years. I don't speak Japanese so I used to be terrified of getting lost, but an app called map.me will download (ie, no data charges) a street map of that or any country, and works with GPS.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:36 pm

    @bratschegirl: Email is still typically sent unencrypted and so is subject to being read by hackers.

  10. Tim Martin said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

    I can't comment on the other reasons listed (server space and so on), but the "remorseless conservativeness" of Japanese organizations rings true as a reason why fax machines would persist. Japan may have a high-tech image in the west, but my experience is that Japan is very *selectively* high-tech. And in some regards they are flat-out behind the times. I remember that one of my friends from college in Japan – this was in 2005 – didn't know what an mp3 was!

  11. John Rohsenow said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 4:50 am

    If memory serves, it was in Arthur Koestler's LOTUS AND THE ROBOT
    (1964?) that I read that the houses are numbered in the order in which
    they were built. i believe that he also said that most of the streets had
    no names until the US Occupation Forces insisted on street signs after
    WW II.

  12. phspaelti said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 6:02 am

    I can't comment on the idea that houses are numbered in the order they were built, but it doesn't look like it to me. The houses next to mine were built only recently, but the numbering is continuous.

    House numbering is perfectly orderly. It just doesn't proceed by street, but rather by block. Streets are not named, but blocks are named. And blocks are sub-divided and then numbered (usually in a circular order.) This does mean that the numbering is not terribly transparent, as houses across the street will have completely different numbers, and if the block is oddly shaped there can be sudden jumps in numbering.
    All this means that for anyone not intimately familiar with the neighborhood, maps are essential.

  13. Tim Martin said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    "I can't comment on the idea that houses are numbered in the order they were built, but it doesn't look like it to me."

    Ok, there have been too many comments on this without someone looking it up. From Wikipedia:

    Street names are seldom used in postal addresses (except in Kyoto and some Hokkaidō cities such as Sapporo), and most Japanese streets do not have names. Banchi blocks often have an irregular shape, as banchi numbers were assigned by order of registration in the older system, meaning that especially in older areas of the city they will not run in a linear order.

    A blogger made a visual example: https://sivers.org/jadr

  14. Svafa said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

    @Chas Belov: Faxes aren't any more secure than email. Most phone systems are now digital, so you lose the only "security" they provided (which could still easily be intercepted). The fact that emails can be encrypted makes them a more secure form of transmission.

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