Japanese still fax party invitations, bank documents and shopping orders. Business people call the fax a required communication tool, used for vital messages, often in place of e-mail. In the early hours of last year’s nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, operators informed the government of an emergency seawater injection by dialing up Tokyo and sending a fax.
Japan’s continued fax devotion may be an endearing quirk, what with the country’s reputation as a high-tech playland, all bright lights and flawless trains and chirping micro-devices. But it may also represent a deeper sign of the nation’s inability to change and to accommodate global standards, even as it cedes economic ground to Asian rivals such as China and South Korea.
“It goes back to the famous theory that there are two Japans,” said Serkan Toto, a Tokyo-based consultant for Japanese Web, mobile and social gaming companies. “One is very efficient and highly productive. The other is where things are very slow and there’s barely any innovation. Information technology is in that second basket.”
With their traditional reverence for paper and handwriting, the Japanese still see use for the analog world. Computer use lags behind that in other developed countries. Business meetings revolve around printed documents, distributed in binders of breathtaking heft. And at government ministries, fax machines spin and whir, the centerpieces of a busy bureaucracy.
What other device spits out a confirmation notice declaring its success?
“It’s reliable,’’ said Toyoko Yoshino, owner of a real estate company that is an hour outside Tokyo. She uses the fax machine almost daily, she said, because she trusts it.
Most international trade groups long ago stopped keeping track of fax machine statistics as the technology, in most places, grew obsolete. Experts point out that fax statistics are hard to track even for those who want to, because increasingly, the fax technology is folded into phones, Xerox machines and computers. But several of the world’s most prominent fax machine makers — including Brother, Sharp and Ricoh — are based in Japan.
So Japan, in a testament to its fax fascination, still tries. As of March, according to Japan’s Cabinet Office, fax machines could be found in 59 percent of Japanese homes. (That penetration rate, after climbing for years, has peaked in the past five years.)
Coming up with a similar number for the United States would require a “polite fiction,” said Jonathan Coopersmith, a Texas A&M University associate professor and an expert on the history of the facsimile. But even in the early 1990s, only about 3 percent of U.S. homes had the machines, he said.
In terms of fax reliance, “I don’t think any other nation comes close to Japan,” Coopersmith said.