Why Japan is Totally Not High Tech (and why I love it anyway)

Japan has a reputation of loving high-tech gadgets and super advanced technology.

Just look at the humanoid robot “Pepper,” which swept Japan last summer. The robot, which has the ability to understand emotions, sold out in less than a minute after going on sale.

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(Image Credit: Yuya Shino, Reuters.)

Or, how about the incredibly realistic humanoid robot, Chihira, featured by Toshiba last year in Las Vegas?

JapanTimes_ChihiraAico.png (Image Credit: Japan Times.)

Maybe you might have also seen Japan’s high tech toilets with features like a washing and drying wand, an automatic light for nighttime visits, and detergent to rinse the bowl.

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But the technological reality in offices, and homes, and businesses in Japan is quite different (at least in my experience)

Here are just a few of the ways that Japan is totally not high tech.

  1. Cash Economy

Japan runs almost entirely on cash. If you go to the grocery store, you will be expected to pay in cash. If you go to a restaurant, cash is the norm.

Even for quite large purchases, cash is completely normal and preferred. I paid for a several hundred dollar hotel room – in cash. It is not unusual to walk around Japan carrying a wallet with $200, $300, or even $400 in cash. I actually feel insecure in Japan if I do not have at least $100 in cash with me at all times.

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But even more unthinkable (to me) amounts of cash in Japan are totally possible.

When I was living in Kyoto, I had a government grant to do research. Since it takes time to establish a bank account in Japan, the office gave us our first grant installment as a money order. I walked down the street to the bank to exchange the order for cash. I left the bank with several THOUSAND dollars IN CASH.

The bank teller casually asked me if I would like an envelope for my withdrawal.

An envelope??! I wanted a metal briefcase tethered to my wrist. I was so paranoid that I would drop the money or lose it somehow between the bank and my new home 6 hours away by train.

Fortunately nothing happened. I buried the envelope in my closet, and kept it there until I was able to open a proper bank account.

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With the cash culture in Japan, many people do not even have credit cards. This makes online shopping quite interesting. Amazon.co.jp offers a option to pay for your online purchase WITH CASH at a PHYSICAL convenience store. You can print out the receipt, carry it to your nearest convenience store, and pay at the register with cash.

I think the culture is slowly changing, and credit cards have become more common in the last few years. However, cash is still completely the standard.

  1. Fax Machines

Remember fax machines? I don’t. I mean, I saw a fax machine when I watched “Babe.” But I never experienced fax machines in my own home.

From Babe via Yarn, “It’s a fax machine mother. You can send us letters by phone.”

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Large companies in Japan use fax machines. Sony still uses faxes.

In 2013, Japanese households bought over 1.7 million fax machines! Meanwhile, the machines have become so obsolete in the United States that the Smithsonian has two machines in its collection.

I think the obsession in Japan with the fax has to do with a mistrust of the virtual and a trust in the physical. Handwritten, tangible faxes that can be lifted and carried offer a sense of security, while submitting an online form does not.

  1. Fewer Personal Computers

Many people in Japan do not have personal computers in their homes.

This might be the hardest for me to accept. As I am writing this, I have two computers in front of me. When I go home to my family’s house for holidays, it is not unusual for all my parents, my two siblings, and me to be sitting in the living room each person on their own laptop clicking away.

Working side by side with my dad with our laptops, coffee, and sweet treats.

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Now, my family might be a little more computer obsessed than many people, even in the United States. But most students I know have their own computer, and most of my work colleagues have their own personal computer. My basic assumption is that most everyone has a personal computer. 1 person = 1 computer. The math is simple.

But my friends in Japan do not really have computers. My hairdresser (who has become my good friend over the years. I get a haircut from him once a year when I am in Japan) recently told me he does not have a computer. I could not stop asking him questions – How do you send emails? How do you watch videos? How do you search for random facts online and generally fritter away your time?

He said he had a smart phone and that was all he needed. Besides he worked crazy hours and hardly had any free time at home.

I would say my friends are not unusual. Japan has just 541 personal computers per 1,000 people, compared to 762 personal computers in the United States.

Not sure how I could work without my laptop…

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  1. Weak Internet

 

One reason for the lack of personal computers might be the poor internet system in Japan.

Internet is very hard to find in Japan, wireless even more difficult.

My college had an entirely wired campus. Anywhere you went – even outside on the lawns – had excellent, reliable, fast internet. I have now worked at three universities in Japan. None of them had wireless. I had to physically plug my laptop into the internet (quite the challenge since my MacBook Air does not even have an Ethernet port!).

My internet set-up in my apartment in Japan…

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Outside of the universities, the options are even slimmer.

Starbucks in Japan does offer wireless but you have to first register an account online. If you show up to Starbucks hoping to use the internet (as I did) and have not first registered online, you are out of luck. You cannot connect to the Starbucks network without first registering online, but of course you cannot go online to register because you have not registered yet.

What to do? The Starbucks employee advised me to go home, register, and then come  back with my account ready.

Internet in the hotel

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  1. Copy Paper

 

Japan loves its forms in triplicate (or at least duplicate).

Thank goodness for heaps of copy paper, that magical coated paper that transfers information written on the front to sheets beneath.

Not sure how it works? Here’s a diagram of carbonless copy paper (which has largely replaced carbon paper):

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(Image credit: Wikipedia.)

 

In Japan, you can expect lots of copy paper if you visit the bank, the post office, the city government office, the university administration office… pretty much any office.

 

  1. Hanko

 

Hanko are stamps in Japan that are used in place of signatures.

Often hanko are used for official documents like office paperwork, contracts, apartment leases, and bank accounts. Hanko are also required on more everyday documents, like package delivery receipts. Hanko are usually stamped in red ink.

I carved my own hanko during my first visit to Japan!

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Because I made it myself, it is somewhat unusual. It shows my name in English, is made of stone (usually they are made of rubber stamp material), and is square. The biggest issue with my hanko is the size. It is nearly twice as large as the typical hanko, which means that it spills out of the tidy circle that has been prepared for hanko stamps on most forms.

In the land of standardization, my hanko is a bit problematic. But I made it myself and I love it, so I keep using it.

When I bought my first Japanese cellphone, I stamped with my hanko. When I leased my first apartment in Kyoto, I stamped about 15 times all over the lease with my hanko. The apartment manager kept indicating some new spot on the lease saying, “Please stamp here… and here… and here… and here…” If I have official business at the bank in Japan, I need to bring my hanko. Whenever I fly to Japan, I pack my hanko, just in case.

If you are visiting Japan, you can purchase an inexpensive mass-produced hanko at the 100 yen (or dollar) store. You can also have a hanko made for you.

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(Image Credit: Hanko21.)

I only have one hanko, but lots of people I know in Japan have several hanko – typically one for casual informal stamping (e.g., package delivery receipts), one for bank accounts, and one “registered” stamp. Having multiple stamps is more secure, just like having multiple passwords for different online accounts.

The most official stamp (the registered stamp) has to be registered at the local government office and is used for serious contracts like mortgage agreements or buying a house. In those cases, you have to bring not only your hanko but also the paperwork proving that you are the legal owner of the hanko.

For now, my hand-carved stamp is serving me just fine!

 

  1. Human Phone Systems

 

I actually love this fact about Japan – when you call a company in Japan, an actual person answers the phone!!

Get Human is totally unnecessary in Japan.

Just call the listed number and you will (most likely) reach a person with hardly any waiting time. In Japan, I have never had to wade through a long phone menu pressing this and that button, and entering this and that information only to have to wait on hold for hours.

I call, get a person, and ask my question. Amazing!

Even public payphone booths still exist in Japan. Although this one needs some repair..

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While I enjoy the human phone systems in Japan, K is quite impressed by the high tech automated phone systems in the United States.

He thinks it is pretty cool that you simply speak into the phone and the computer can understand what you are saying. In his experience, this works not only with simple numbers (like, “Say your birthday”) but also with complete sentences (like, “Please describe the issue you are calling about.”) He blames that disorganization of the Japanese language for the lack of such automated answering systems.

 

  1. Company Websites with Limited Information

 

This is slowly changing but company websites in Japan sometimes lack basic information or features that I expect.

For example, Loft (a chain of stationary and home goods stores that I love) does not have an online store for shopping. Too bad, because I would buy all their stuff.

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Or you can just forget about technology and go enjoy the beautiful outdoors!!

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Thanks for reading!!

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Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.

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