Revealing Japan's low-tech belly

By Michael Fitzpatrick
BBC News

Image caption,
Tokyo is viewed as a high-tech hub

Police stations without computers, 30-year-old "on hold" tapes grinding out tinny renditions of Greensleeves, ATMs that close when the bank does, suspect car engineering, and kerosene heaters but no central heating.

A dystopian vision of a nation with technology stuck in an Orwellian time warp? Not at all. These are aspects of contemporary, low-tech Japan that most visitors miss as they look around the hi-tech nation that its government, electronics industry and tourism board are keen to promote.

Tech-savvy internationalised companies such as Panasonic characterise that familiar but smaller segment of Japan Inc. The second much larger, and often subsidised economy, comprises overstaffed family-run firms that are decidedly low-tech and high-priced.

Digital divide

When the business and tech-focused Fast Company magazine released its list of most innovative companies in 2010 only one Japanese company made the selection, and that was a retailer.

So what could account for Japan's lack of international clout tech-wise? Some blame its focus on the domestic market, a low-quality, inefficient workforce and poor working conditions. There is also the digital divide.

Despite the country's showy internet speeds and some of the cheapest broadband around many Japanese are happier doing things the old way.

Figures for internet users in Japan remain around 70% compared to neighbouring South Korea's 82%.

And even among those online there is a divide between those who are dependent on the internet and those who could live without it.

One government poll shows that although 44% of Japanese use the internet at least once or twice a month, the rest responded that they use it "hardly at all" or "not at all".

Considering Japan's top heavy society of over 50s, many of whom have not got to grips with the internet, and who make up 30% of the population and that figure begins to make sense.

New paradigm

Image caption,
Not everyone wants to spend their whole time online

Many of Japan's older men - who are those most likely to run a business - have a marked preference to stay offline even in the office, says Tokyo-based entrepreneur Terrie Lloyd.

"There is a clear cut-off for Japanese bosses who know how to use PCs and mobile web-capable devices and those who don't," he said.

"The easiest way to tell is whether they have an e-mail address on the all-important name card. If they're over 50 and don't have an e-mail address, it's a dead giveaway that you either use the phone or forget about contacting them."

Some say this technophobic demographic helps explain why many of Japan's industries do not benefit from IT.

"The world shifted into an entirely new paradigm, not only of wealth creation (which moved away from manufacturing hard goods to software and intellectual property), but also of culture," says Alex Kerr, author of an in-depth analysis of Japan's contemporary ills, Dogs and Demons.

"Oblivious to all this, Japan's government ministries, colleges, and big industry went on doing everything the old time- tested Japanese way."

Digital publishing

This backward approach surprises many people.

Talking in Tokyo at a symposium organised by Wired magazine 15 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte director of the Media Lab at MIT warned Japan against becoming one of the "digital homeless."

The country's refusal to shift to digital economies in some areas means this prophecy, to an extent, has come alarmingly true.

Japan's publishing industry is just one example. For years it has resisted change and only recently moved to accommodate a perceived shift to digitisation and the rise of the e-book.

"It goes without saying that eventually Japan will have to find a way to make peace with digital publishing," says tech analyst Steven Nagata. "But the majors of the publishing industry have made it clear that it will not happen until they have no other choice,"

Elsewhere in Japan the forces of reaction are only now starting to go along with the pivotal changes offered by hi-tech and globalisation.

Efforts have been slow. Japan's mighty mobile phone companies sneered at the iPhone, then denied it would impact on Japan, and only now after its success there are they considering their options.

According to Seed Planning of Tokyo 1.7m iPhones were sold in Japan in 2009, giving it a market share of 15%. In 2008 its share stood at 10%.

Finger pointing

Some critics have accused the country's mandarins of restricting innovation.

"The good days walked out the door and no-one noticed, because we were never told of the danger; rather, missed a golden opportunity to carry the innovation fire and spread it forever," says blogger Hideki Onda.

"Political issues and bureaucracy caused our profit from the 70's to 90's to be spent on a regional and sociopolitical food chain," he said.

"And now, for example, Japan cannot make a sensible decision on the likes of spectrum use freed up by TV going digital. It's a big mess."

Although some ministries were visionary, in implementing projects to deliver the world's first cheap, mass market fibre-optic broadband service for example, many others are seen as antediluvian in their attitudes.

Peep into the offices in Tokyo's administration district and you find out why. Here PCs are rare and work carries on in the slow lane.

"Japanese banks, post offices, government offices, all are staffed with three to five times the employees because they must do every process once on paper and then again on computer," says Taro Hitachi a technical editor and patent reader at Hitachi.

"Do you see the pattern here? Japanese aren't all that happy about spiteful machines and distrust automation."

Image caption,
Is Japan burying its head in the sand when it comes to new tech?

This technological divide goes hand in hand with Japan's much touted "Galapagos" status. Like the plants and creatures on those islands Japan's tech standards and business practices have developed a unique character incompatible with anything beyond its borders.

Mr Onda thinks this Galapagos approach was an error perpetuated by the civil servants.

"Anything as foreign and revolutionary as Apple's WYSIWYG GUI operating system will never be accepted, even if it was the best. You see Apple had not paid respects to the Japanese bureaucrats," he said.

To illustrate this, Mr Onda relates a story from 1996 when Apple was keen to puts its computers into Japanese schools. The answer from the Japanese education minister at the time was a curt "No thank-you".

A puzzled Michael Spindler (then Apple's CEO) asked his Japanese colleague when they might return to try again.

In response, his colleague said: "When the 60's-era floor indicator above the ministry's elevator door goes digital."

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