‘Japan: high tech image, low tech reality’

By Jen McClure

Still going strong in Japan… Courtesy of Sony pictures

Robots, high speed trains, electric cars, and cutting edge electronics; you know what country I’m talking about, right? Japan. But, move away from the bright, hi-tech lights of Tokyo, and you will find none of the above anywhere to be seen.  Shocked? This is Japan’s low tech reality.

Japan is very good at exporting its hi-tech image to the world.  The Japanese have crafted a very clever image for themselves in their electronic paradise.  It is true that Japan has contributed technological advancements to the world, but Japanese technology should come with a warning label, “For Export Only.” In reality, everyday Japan is far from cutting edge.  Image this scenario: a place where the ATMs close at 9pm, offices without computers, fax machines in wide use and most homes without central heating.  Hard to believe? Yes.  But, this scenario is all too real in modern day Japan.

Two years ago I left Scotland and went to teach English in Japan.  Stereotypical images of Japan were imbedded in my mind: hi-tech gadgets, heated toilet seats, vending machines and high speed trains.  This stereotype was not incorrect, but once you move away from Tokyo, reality starts to kick in and you begin to wondering if you have travelled back in time…

Everyday life

I moved into my apartment in August 2008.  My immediate observations were: there’s no oven, how can I cook without an oven?  The stove looked like it belonged on a camp site.  The apartment came with a VHS video-recorder. What was I ever going to do with that?  There was a Discman in one of the drawers.  I found cassette tapes.  There was no central heating, just kerosene heaters that give off toxic fumes.  This apartment was not even 10 years old, but already its contents were sadly out of date.

Everywhere I went there was some object or technology from the recent past still living a happy existence in Japan.  Walkmans, Minidisc players, fax machines, you name it, they still have it.  Trying to settle in, I was often overwhelmed by Japanese and frustrated with not being able to read or understand anything.  My next door neighbour, a fellow foreigner helped me out by taken me to our local DVD rental shop.  I thought DVD, music and video game rental was recent history –apparently not.  In the UK people no longer use such establishments.  You can order movies online instantaneously or buy cheap DVDs from Amazon.  DVD rental is big business in Japan.  I wonder if that is because DVDs, CDs and video games are expensive to buy in Japan and most people would rather rent them than buy?  I rarely used Amazon.co.jp but when I did I thought it was great as you could place your order online but pay for it at your local convenience store in cash.  The number of Japanese people I knew who used Amazon.  Zero.  Did I mention that Japan is a cash society?  You can pay for pretty much anything at a convenience store.  Airline tickets, concert tickets, your gas bill…and so on.  You can also do “cash on delivery” in Japan.  All this is very convenient but I missed not being able to use my flexible friend.

Bank cards in Japan do not even resemble their UK counterparts.  They are quite possibly the most ‘budget,’ ‘un’ hi-tech cards you have ever seen in your life.  Sure, your name is embossed on the card but that’s about it.  There is no magnet strip so I have no idea how the machine reads your card and you can rarely use the card in an ATM that doesn’t belong to your bank.  In my case, my ‘bank’ was a regional bank which only operates in the prefecture where I lived.  If I wanted to travel to Tokyo or anywhere else, I would have to bring with me all the money I needed for that trip.  And forget about paying for anything by card or easily using a foreign credit card.  Convenient?  I think not.  On the plus side, ATM’s in Japan accept coins and the cartoon characters on the screen bow at you before and after your transaction.  What they lack in convenience, they certainly make up for in politeness.

The world of (Keitai’s) mobile phones in Japan would leave some people baffled.  Your stereotypical view that all things must be miniature could not be further from the truth.  Mobile phones maybe larger, but they can do so much more than your average UK phone.  Japan has had a 3G network for years which puts us to shame.  The amazing thing about mobiles in Japan is that you can send long emails directly from your phone.  Any basic phone can do this, not just your flashy iPhone or Blackberry.  You have your own personal email address for your phone, e.g. jenmcclure@softbank.ne.jp  and you can send an email to any address including other people’s computers anywhere in the world from you phone.  Text messages are so limiting in the UK and quite frankly seem rather primitive in light of this technology.  Another amazing thing about Keitai’s is the ability to pay electronically for just about anything.  Infra-red sensors on your phone are placed over a pad at cash points in convenience stores so there’s no need for a cash transaction.  Smart, but why not just use chip n’ pin bank cards?  Brendan Jenkins an English teacher in Japan commented about internet use on mobile phones in Japan: “This is one aspect of Japan that is interesting; I would say that a lot of the younger generation are more comfortable using the internet on their keitai than on a computer.”  I think this statement is very true.  And finally, in the interest of safety, Japanese phones send a message warning of an imminent earthquake just a few seconds before they hit –clever.

At the Office

The high school that I taught at was paying homage to everything “old school.”  Blackboards with chalk, wooden desks, no technology in the classroom –there was barely any electricity.  In the average classroom there was no chance to use a laptop as there was no overhead projector.  The amount of technology I could use in a classroom amounted to a CD player.  There was no central heating and in the winter, students sat at their desks with blankets around their laps.  I lived in Northern Japan and it gets extremely cold and snowy there.  And my school was not the worst, in fact, it was pretty much the norm.

Paper and chalk is the tradition at Japanese schools which means that IT skills are at a bare minimum.  There doesn’t seem to be the same focus on learning basic IT skills in Japan compared to the UK, which may explain why people are so resistant to embracing new technology.  Forgot about pupils for a second, teachers were poorly trained in IT skills, many of whom could not perform simple tasks, such as making a graph or adding a picture to a document.  The computers at my school were old and slow and in need of an upgrade.

The internet is barely used at school even by teachers.  This is a quick anecdote from a recent survey of foreign residents in Japan.  Here’s what one foreigner wrote: “When I ask a question to a colleague in the workplace and they can’t answer it, they ask others in the office, then it goes as far as family members, neighbours and friends.  In America we would just say, lets Google it.”  Google, Gmail, Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube are not widely known or used in Japan.

Interesting, a fellow English teacher, Andrea McGovern was asked this question by a Japanese friend: “Do you think Japanese students are way behind western countries in using computers and technology?” and she said in a word, “Yes.”  Her friend said that he never used a computer until university.  And he’s not ancient, he’s 27.  This discussion about technology circulated around other foreign English teachers and they shared their views about the school they worked at.

Here are some of the revelations:

“The library has only 2 working computers and I have yet to find a computer room. Recently my 2nd years were asked to research an aspect of Japanese culture in order to teach a foreigner about it on their school trip. The students turned to books, some older than I am for information.”  Anonymous

“My Junior high school students seem to barely interact with any technology other than their TV’s and DS consoles.”  Andrea McGovern, NZ

“When I first arrived here 7 years ago I was amazed at how old and out-of-date the junior high schools seemed to be.  Only 1 out of 4 junior high schools that I go to even now has a western toilet, all have paraffin heaters in the classrooms which cause massive amounts of condensation, but none have air-con in the classrooms despite the heat and humidity in summer -only wall-mounted fans.”  Edmund Fec, UK

Schools in Japan are definitely lacking technology but slowly they are receiving more money for IT.  Japan spends a very small proportion of its GDP on education compared to other Organisation for Economic and Co-operation for Development (OECD) countries.  Until recently there was very little co-ordination of IT policy at schools even at a municipal level.  But not every school is stuck in a time warp, newer elementary schools that I went to have fantastic computer rooms and other good facilities.  Recently, every elementary and junior high school in Japan got a new large (over 40 inch) TV per classroom.  Ironically, a lot of them aren’t being used because they are too big to fit into the rooms.  My guess is that the schools had no say as to what size of screen they wanted.  Sounds like the Japanese government just bulk ordered TVs from China.

In the UK you’ll find “Wi-Fi” almost everywhere but in Japan there is virtually no “Wi-Fi” connection.  Internet at home is mostly connected from the modem by ethernet cable.  How backwards and limiting is that? In researching this story, so many people have reiterated this expectation of Japan: “I always thought of Japan as an amazing tech savvy country and found it quite the opposite living there.” Alexandra Robilliard, Australia. Alexandra also commented: “My senior high students were so fascinated when I told them that I keep in contact via Skype. I was a little surprised that none of them had ever heard of Skype whereas kids that age in Australia knew all about it.”

According to http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm Japan has a high percentage of internet users, a massive 78.2% but I think I can quickly tell you that most of that internet usage takes place on a mobile phone not a computer.  One interesting quirk about Japan is how anti- Apple they are.  Apple computers are scarce in Japan.  I was surprised to hear that Apple has not managed to infiltrate the market in Japan.  Back in 1996, Apple was keen to put their computers into Japanese schools but the answer from the Japanese Education Minister was a curt “No, Thank you.”  For some unexplained reason the Japanese are anti-Apple.  I knew people who had constant problems with their Macs in Japan.  Edmund Fec commented about his employer’s reaction to his Mac: “In Sakata city, I’m not even allowed to connect my Mac to the school LAN because Macs aren’t supported by the computer service company.”  When it came to setting up the internet in your apartment and you had a Mac, you were in for a long wait.  Alexandra Robilliard commented about the Internet Service Provider’s visit to her apartment: “They all arrived, see the Mac and there is the horrible intake of breath/sucking of teeth that makes me realise it will be a mission.”  Japanese people just can’t deal with Macs.

A quarter of Japan’s population are over 65 years old and they are not very IT-literate.  In the work place, superiors of an older generation haven’t come to grips with the technological advancements of the last 20 years.  Japanese offices are usually oversubscribed in manpower as this is seen as the traditional way to run a business.  You’ll find many people in jobs that have been obsolete in the UK for years.  There are people who still happily work calculations out on paper and store data in paper files rather than on a computer.  The offices I went to in Japan were all wall-to-wall jam packed with files and documents from the past couple of decades.

This bureaucratic nightmare became all too evident in July 2010 when an astonishing story hit the headlines in Japan.  The police found the mummified body of a man believed to be one Japan’s oldest at 111, but that’s not the alarming part.  The man’s 81 year old daughter had been collecting his pension for over 30 years.  She left his body in a room of their house and didn’t notify the authorities of his death.  This shocking revelation sent local authorities all over Japan checking up on their elderly.  The results were not favourable.  To date, Japanese authorities have not been able to find more than 280 citizens who were listed as being over 100 years old.  Once this story came out, many more followed; a Tokyo woman of 113 who had been last seen in the 1980’s,  a woman believed to be one of Japan’s oldest at 125 is also missing.  Authorities tried to find her at her last known address but when they got there, they discovered that the site had been turned into a park in 1981.  The New York Times wrote about the questions on everyone’s lips: “Is the country witnessing the results of pension fraud on a large scale, or, as most officials maintain, was most of the problem a result of sloppy record keeping? Or was the whole sordid affair, as the gloomiest commentators here are saying, a reflection of disintegrating family ties, as an indifferent younger generation lets its elders drift away into obscurity?” From my experience of the Japanese workplace, sloppy record keeping and non computerised records are the main culprit in this instance.

Japan was an advanced, tech hungry country 20 years ago but with its aging population and economic decline it seems that Japan has lost its sparkle.  Indeed, it still has many things that would blow your mind: a visit to Tokyo’s electric town or a trip on a bullet train, but your average visitor doesn’t see the real Japan behind its glowing neon lights.  They don’t see the bare classrooms, the old computers, the out of date technology clinging on for dear life, which has been long dead in the rest of the world.  But, the amazing thing about Japan is that it really has refined and polished so many wonderful everyday items.  Toilets, appliances, cars, navigation systems, TVs, trains, karaoke machines, vending machines, interactive restaurant menus, robotics.  None of these items were invented in Japan, but they glow with the aura of Japan; functionality and practicality.  All Japanese people should be proud of that.