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 44.

    These HYS are taking the Michael. Why open up debate on this? The Japanese use fax machines. Truly life changing.

    Whilst I appreciate that a 16 year old girl, out-swimming Lochte and Phelps might need more moderation, its your lead story. How about a comment or two on that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I love Japan, and there is no doubt that traditional Japanese writing benefits greatly from careful caligraphy, however to stick with the fax instead of scanning the document and emailing the atachment seems to lack technological common sense

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I'm not sure I could face returning to the fax but there is something to be said about hand written notes. I'm the only one of my friends who sends hard copy thank you cards, and still writes letters, and think it is shame that this form of communication seems to be fading. An e-birthday card is offensive to me, and I think we are becoming less thoughtful as a consequence of emails and texts.

  • Comment number 41.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    If you think about it this actually makes perfect sense as the Japanese do not use the same characters as us to write. Consequently using a QWERTY keyboard (even though it was probably made in the east) would be awkward at best. With a fax there is an infinite number of symbols and characters that can be sent in any order around the page.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    At work tend to use e-mail for people I don't want to talk to.

    Fax would be even better. They've got to get out of their chair to pick it up, replace the paper when it runs out, and if they want to bother me with a reply look up my number and find a machine with paper in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    @31. Emails seem to get lost all the time, and as for not getting 'binned', I'm sure people bulk mail folder is the reason! Faxes are obsolete, but only because Emails are convenient and cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Something to be said by judging personality by hand writing. Sure using a computer all the time messes your eyes up. So may be the Japanese are on to something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    When will the standard keyboard be replaced? On original typewriters it was re-arrenged to QWERTY layout to slow typists down, because they typed so fast that the keys would clash. Perhaps we should use a stenograph!


  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    For me, it's way too unreliable.
    Engaged lines, no toner/ink, paper fed squint/crinkled.
    It's 80's technology and I haven't used one for at least 5 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I've lived and worked in Tokyo for three decades, and in the past eight years have never used a fax, or known anybody else to do so. There is one fax machine in the organisation where I work, which employs a thousand people. It stands alone and unused throughout the day. Any translator or communication worker who relies on fax would soon become ignored and go bankrupt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Why do some people who have neither been anywhere near Japan, nor understand Japanese culture, still find it necessary to post moronic comments??

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    When we lived in Japan, we used our computer for sending and receiving faxed documents. Not very often though, and when we needed to use it we had to figure out how to make it work again because we'd forgotten everything. You don't necessarily need a fax machine to send or receive faxes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    FAX has been done away with for a reason. The fact is most people prefer email because at least it won't get lost because some one accidently binned it, or it was unreadable because there was no cartridge in the machine or the number was busy... too many reasons to forget FAX. We are better off without it.. i think

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Yes, fax machines are quaint. But the reason they have gone out of fashion for regular communication in the developed world is that they are inefficient. I remember spending much of the 90s queuing at the company fax machine while someone sent a 20-pager - doubly so if the receiving machine was also engaged. And have you tried searching for keywords through a pile of faxed documents?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I work in an international business organisations and purhcase orders by fax are the norm from most of Asia (and some parts of Europe). It gives the sender a sense that something has actually been delivered/committed to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @14. dave
    "...what happens when the net crash's..." [sic]
    If the Internet has crashed then I would imagine you'd be too busy worrying that a nuclear war has just broken out or that the Earth's magnetic field has disappeared and we've been hit by a large solar storm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Anyone trying to put a positive spin on this as cultural or personal has never really worked I truly Japanese office. I've lived and worked here for 20 years.
    The average corporate man, who is over 40 or 50, will do anything to maintain the status quo and the army of contract workers and sectaries that do all work for these guys.
    Don't try spin this as cultural or quaint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    @18, yup, the legal service still use good old fashioned pagers too. Accountants seem to like faxes as well. Somehow the scan to email functionality never quite worked as well as the fax machine, it was never quite as easy to use for the non tech people. I support IT in the legal industry and they are very set in their ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Yes. A very wise country.


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