Japan still in love with the fax
Hi-tech nation of contradictions
Despite being hailed for its techno-innovation, Japan is a little more traditional than many people think – over half of homes apparently still contain fax machines.
The country’s businesses and government organisations continue to rely on the legacy technology to transmit important documents, while 59 per cent of households feature a clunky paper-muncher, according to a Washington Post article which cited Cabinet Office stats.
In Britain, some 40 per cent of workers in small and medium enterprises also still use faxes, according to an Intel report from last year, but the level of usage is more surprising given that by the end of 2011, the land of the rising sun had the second fastest average broadband speed of any country in the world, according to Akamai’s State of the Internet report.
The Washington Post offers up two explanations for why faxing may still be a popular pastime in Japan; because the country is unable “to change and to accommodate global standards”; and that it still places emphasis on paper and handwriting.
Both of these are true to an extent.
Calligraphy is certainly revered to an extent which would perplex a westerner, and given that the language contains three different scripts – one based on Chinese characters and two purely Japanese syllabets – writing out a document can sometimes be more effective and less time consuming than typing.
On the other hand, the whole perception of Japan as a technology superpower sometimes overshadows the fact that it has a rapidly ageing population – many of whom may well prefer to fax than email.
In the end, the reason why Japan is so fascinating to foreigners is the very fact it has these massive contradictions co-existing quite happily.
While banks innovate with biometric authentication technology in ATMs and cutting edge anti-phone fraud prototypes, therefore, inside the branch they’ll still be sending documentation back and forth via fax, while customers in smaller towns could find their ATMs locked outside of business hours. ®
Why the fax is still popular in Japan
There are several reasons why the Fax is still popular in Japan. The CCITT Group 3 image standard used in Fax machines was designed to be just enough resolution to read handwritten kanji characters as used in Japanese. Before the advent of word processing, Japanese companies had terrible difficulty producing typewritten documents, so businesses usually circulated handwritten documents via fax. There's a really interesting article on El Reg somewhere, written by a really clever guy, about Japanese typewriters and word processing. It explains all this stuff, you ought to read it.
But the main reason why Faxes are still popular in Japan is not obvious: the cryptic Japanese street address system. Most businesses and homes have fax machines so they can send hand drawn custom maps to people who need to visit or make deliveries. Japanese street addresses are numbered by the age of the building. Street names are often unmarked and are often laid out in strange patterns. I recall buying my first Japanese Zaurus PDA in 1994 and being astonished that it had detailed maps of major Japanese cities stored in ROM, you could draw on them and fax them to people. This is why GPS systems were first popular with Japanese consumers. As GPS smartphones take over, and everyone can use their phones to access the internet for maps, the fax will gradually decline. But for most people, a fax machine is still easier.
> are still keeping paper files on their clients!
Often they have a requirement to keep files for decades - what electronic format would you recommend I store a 99 year lease in? Word .doc or .docx?
There are also a whole bunch of regulations on privacy and handling for some industries - it's a lot easier for me to prove in court that nobody broke into a locked filing cabinet in a locked office than it is to prove a computer wasn't compromised
When dealing w/printed forms filled out manually, wretched software for scanners means it's actually much faster to drop the form in the feeder of a fax machine and punch in a phone number, as opposed to discovering whether or not the scanner driver has mysteriously gone tits up, necessitating a reboot.
HP's been selling "all-in-one" fax/print/scan machines for ~20 years now and over that period they've accomplished a remarkable feat: the software for these devices has grown steadily worse for the entire time. If they'd just freeze their product cycle for a few days or even just minutes and actually try eating their own rubbish they might get a clue as to why they're in a death spiral.