Japan and the fax: A love affair

Fax machine

Fax machines gather dust in parts of the world, consigned to history since the rise of email. Yet in Japan, a country with a hi-tech reputation, the fax is thriving.

At Japan's talent agency HoriPro Inc, Yutaro Suzuki is busy writing up his next project proposal. Not typing, but writing by hand.

HoriPro is one of the largest and oldest agencies in the country and Suzuki publicises almost 300 singers and actors. But behind this glamorous profile, he cordially writes detailed schedules by hand.

"It takes longer but my feelings and passion come across better," says the 48-year-old public relations expert. "I find emails very cold so I prefer to fax handwritten documents."

In a country which boasts one of the fastest broadband speeds in the world, Suzuki thinks his affection for the fax may be a rare case in such a tech-savvy country. But 87.5% of Japanese businessmen surveyed by the Internet Fax Research Institute say that a fax machine is a crucial business tool.

And Suzuki's preference reflects aspects of Japanese culture which still embrace fax machines, despite their disappearance from parts of the developed world.

Firstly, the culture of handwriting is firmly rooted here. For example, the majority of resumes are still handwritten because Japanese employers are said to judge people's personalities from their writings.

For season's greetings cards, don't dare think of sending computer generated messages, says Midori's "how to write a letter" website.

"New Year's cards without handwritten messages come across as businesslike and automatic," it says.

Yutaro Suzuki Emails lack warmth, says Suzuki

Not surprisingly, people aspire to have good handwriting. Calligraphy remains one of the most popular lessons that parents send their children to and many adults take private lessons to improve their writings, too.

Secondly, Japan is obsessed with hard copies. People like to hold actual documents, not just to receive soft copies.

"You may miss an email but if you fax a document, it's physically there so you cannot miss it," says Setsuko Tsushima who runs a real estate agency.

"Even if I am not in the office, other staff would notice that an urgent document has come through," she adds.

For any official documents including housing contracts, they also require seals instead of signatures in Japan.

The majority of the population has a seal called jitsuin which is officially registered as theirs through a government office.

Unless original documents must be submitted in person, fax machines again come in handy because documents stamped with seals can be sent.

There is another reason Japan continues to use fax machines in the email era.

Japan is a country known to be high-tech but not everyone is. More than a fifth of the population is aged over 65.

The older generation who cannot keep up with emails still prefer to use fax machines.

That is why Supermarket Aeon has decided to take orders by fax and phone, not just on their website.

"We started taking orders online in 2008 but received quite a few requests from customers, especially in rural areas, that they prefer to order by phone or fax," says Hideo Binnaka who heads the online sales team.

"They are mainly our older customers so we also offer to check up on them if we don't receive any orders for a month to make sure that they are ok."

Japanese calligraphy Calligraphy is highly valued

There are two types of Japanese consumers: those who are very high-tech and others who are still wedded to traditional forms.

The majority of Japanese households - 58.6% of them according to the government - still owns a fax machine, which also functions as a phone.

They are not necessarily clunky and old, however, because the manufacturers continue to release new models which have the latest technology including online faxing. It allows users to fax a document by using the internet.

The Internet Fax Research Institute says that more Japanese companies are keen to use e-fax (a fax sent using the internet) due to advantages such as cost reduction, business efficiency and environmental friendliness.

But for Suzuki, nothing beats handwriting.

"I draw maps, too," he says.

And there it is, on his summer party invitation, a map to the venue with every detail that partygoers need.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Japanese society is highly traditionalist and ritualistic and personal messages are an integral part of their culture
    If you send an email you send an insult

    Japan has also resisted immigration which is used to smash up indigenous culture in first world societies
    Japan has some of the lowest immigration rates on the planet

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Not also popular in Japan, but also Thailand, where business would simply not function without the fax machine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Fax machines are too temperamental and cumbersome for me. When sending signed documents, I prefer to transmit them via the Internet as pdf files - easy to do, and with all the advantages (such as they are) of a fax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Ah so desu ka !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    My job involves international trades and we have suppliers and customers scattered around the world. Whilst email is the mainstream communication channel for us I would never agree to an office without access to a fax machine. Why? Because when email goes down, and that happens more often than you think, it is the fax machine that saves the day. At least for me it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    52 Minutes ago
    These would then be faxed to translators rather than scanned and emailed. Completed jobs would be delivered by hand.
    It is the personal delivery of final documents that is the nice touch in Japan (I've lived and worked there too). But scanning a doc and emailing it, or faxing it, is no different..... Except the emailed scan is probably easier to read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I am a solicitor in London. Whilst email is increasingly used for certain communication our primary method for formally contact various agencies at short notice, the Court Service, expert witnesses, Prisons, the CPS remains fax. Any important documents will be faxed primarily and then a hard copy sent in the DX. Fax may have gone out of fashion but it is still a vital business tool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I like it.

    Emails are great, but are so often sent without thought. They are too easy. People get casual, lazy & become inadvertently rude.

    A pet dislike of mine is when a person at work who sits 3 seconds walk away sends an email!

    I used to work for a big Plc. The IT Director used to say, 'don't send an email, go & talk to them.'

    Anything to keep communication more personal is a good thing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I would love to have a personal seal. It would add a sense of artistry and responsibility to your communications. The Japanese have a wonderful sense about themselves, even writing a letter becomes a act of art and engagement. The USA seems bland in comparison, much like a McDonald hamburger. lost in anonymity

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I support Kev. I worked at a translation company in Tokyo (big business in Japan) where manuscripts from clients would arrive in the post, or would be collected by us in person as a matter of service to the customer. These would then be faxed to translators rather than scanned and emailed. Completed jobs would be delivered by hand. It's very much about providing the best customer service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    im a self profesed geek and love tech with a passion however there are times when hard copies are nice like holding a book and not a kindle or equivalent and what happens when the net crash's then the fax machine comes into its own there's still a place for older tech plus its nice to use older stuff sometimes

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's E mails all the way for me,

    Tea anyone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    It's not just Japan, I created an app for caterers to receive orders and have had to add fax functionality for clients in New Zealand. I didn't know they were still used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    A well written and informative piece. Thank you.

    I live in Japan and we still have a fax machine at work. It has gone out favor recently (incoming and outgoing), but it will be interesting to see if it makes a comeback.

    Maybe a fax-written "twitter" trend of hand-written tweets will catch on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "Japan is a country known to be high-tech but not everyone is."

    This is an understatement. In my experience Japan is one of the least high-tech countries in the developed world. Why? The general populous have very low computer skills and businesses (especially public offices) are still paper-based operations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I work in Japanese overseas subsidiary based in Singapore and yes documents are always flowing through both fax and email.

    This is especially so for the confirmation of shipping schedule for our goods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    What's a fax?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Also worth noting, Japanese are losing their ability to read/write traditional Kanji. Cell phones have a limited amount of characters which is becoming the “norm”. Older generation bemoan the loss of writing skills of the younger generation.Thus most educated people cannot find the correct kanji character when writing that expresses what they want, just a dumbed down kanji abbreviated version.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Japan has a very low rate of being able to pay by credit card. Once in their hand,you can’t get it back and electronically is not palpable enough. It is down to lack of trust between everyone from feudal times which still exists today. The fax is the same. Send an email, nothing. Send a fax, ahh…it is paper, it exitsergo I must respond and reinforces the stupid Hanko which everyone must use.


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