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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I’m somehow not surprised about this. During the mid-1980’s, when the UK and most of Europe had changed to digital trunk telephone networks, Japan still had an old-ish electro-mechanical network.
    A technically very forward nation allied to very traditional values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    56. See, once upon a time, people weren't constantly petrified of their data being hacked, monitored or otherwise interfered with unless they were actual spies. These days it's like everyone thinks they're a sleeper agent, and their every inane conversation about Kim Cardashian might be some kind of encrypted launch code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    For those of us of a certain age, the fax machine will always have a special place in our lives. I like this method of communication because you can not only write, you can doodle and sketch within the text. It was so much more personal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I was only refuting the statements that faxes are more secure than email, when they are just as insecure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    When we still used fax machines at work (in an oil company), we kept getting faxes from various solicitors and government departments meant for their clients. These usually had confidential or personal details. The senders were usually abusive when we pointed out their mistake and kept sending the faxes to us instead of the correct recipient. Why are faxes considered safe and secure?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    3 Minutes ago
    Faxes are easily doctored.

    What you are forgetting is the sender has the original document. So if it really came down to it, it would be obvious the received copy has been altered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    #52 Hardly. Its unencrypted and goes straight down a phone line. Its as easy to monitor as anything else. If for some reason you are concerned the govt is reading your email (they're not reading mine... its far too boring) just write a letter & stick a stamp on it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    What a load of rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Faxes are easily doctored.

    A high fax baud rate of 144000bps is childsplay for a modern computer to intercept and change on the fly. For context, that high speed is ~215 times slower than my broadband.

    Manually, I could take a fax off the fax machine now, scan it, photoshop it, and return it to the tray in the time it takes someone to grab a coffee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Fax is good for some things, I suppose. Email definitely has its downsides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Modern Fax services - "in the Cloud" or using up-to-date software for rapid scanning, OCR (optical character recognition) processing, email integration and document management - are alive and well and being used by many satisfied individuals and organisations. Invu, FileNet, Hummingbird et al should not be associated with old fashioned clunky fax machines from the 80's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Companies are required to keep hard copies of documents for some years, but it Is surprising how technologically archaic Japan is in some ways; advanced in others. As for handwriting, actually many Japanese have relatively poor skills due to high usage of the PC and limited need for handwriting at work; keyboards here use phonetic Japanese characters which works quite nicely on a QUERTY board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    In a world where all digital communication is under surveillance, a fax is a good way of going "under the radar"

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I faxed a message to someone last week, for the first time in the last 2 or 3 years. I wanted it to be noticed, and it worked. (My registered post had sunk without trace) I got a fax reply from the Chief Exec and it struck me then that faxes were so unusual now that they are kind-of becoming useful again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Faxes are verified by the system as received or fail - email is not and is open to doctoring. As far as I'm aware, solicitors use fax for property offers for this very reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I can remember we kept our telex machine for years after most people used them anymore. The reason,transport companies traditionally confirmed collection orders by telex,and would not accept a verbal order.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Personally I like faxes because as the article says it is in your face. How many E-mails are missed? No, they cannot say they didn't get it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I work in a Japanese office; the fax machine is the bane of my life- these things are purely kept going by the need to receive handwritten documents from older technophobe staff who are afforded respect due to their age (and certainly not their ability). I don't have enough bad words in my vocabulary to express my hatred for all the hours of my life that tree eating monstrosity has stolen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #41 Matt - they sell everything in vending machines! Although it is all new, not used.

    One of the friendliest, most fascinating countries to visit

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The fax survives in repressed countries because it is virtually impossible to intercept messages without being detected. Phone conversations and emails can be easily monitored by the state, but faxes are sent in real time with two machines talking to each other. If the signal is intercepted, you can tell.


Page 7 of 10



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.