Peak fax Japan

by on June 9, 2012 at 2:02 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

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.

The article is interesting throughout.  Kevin Drum offers comment.

Barkley Rosser June 9, 2012 at 2:08 am

There is a contradictory commentary on this odd fact. On the one hand it is supposedly a manifestation of the “two Japans,” with this being like the prevalence of inefficient mom and pop stores outside the keiretsu structure of the efficient export sector, with perhaps a hint of the demographic issue in Japan as having the greatest llfe expectancy along with a now declining population, thus lots of old farts stuck in their old ways.

OTOH, there is the meme that the Japanese alphabet is by far the world’s most complicated and subtle and thus superior to all others in some ultimate communication sense, although only under the very old tech of handwriting, which also adds the element of calligraphic subtlety and nuance and aesthetic refinement. The fax preserves this, while the email has yet to achieve it.

wiki June 9, 2012 at 10:57 am

How is anything in Japanese writing better suited for fax communication than Chinese?

John June 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm

From the article:

“While the typing difficulties also apply to China, the country never got stuck in the fax stage, tech experts say. “

Barkley Rosser June 10, 2012 at 7:02 pm


The article basically explains it. Chinese alphabet is strictly ideographic. Japanese is really three alphabets stuck together as one, one of which is the Chinese ideographic alphabet while the other two are phonetic (or whatever the term is for what the Latin alphabet is). It is simply by far the world’s most complicated alphabet and I think the only one that mixes the two basic systems.

Hasdrubal June 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Interesting, since in my experience, most Japanese under 30 or so actually have a bit of difficulty with handwriting. It’s like cursive in the US: They can read it fine, but if they have to write it (or if you ask them about how to write a particularly confusing Kanji) they have to think it through. Typing on computers is ubiquitous and easy. They even adopted texting well before Americans, writing in Kanji on keypads well before smartphones. Simply phonetically spell the word and the computer puts in the Kanji for you, since there are so many homophones in Japanese, when it inevitably picks the wrong set of Kanji, tab and choose the write one from a list.

I can see older people having some problem since a lot of keyboards have Latin characters rather than Hiragana, but even the older people I know have adapted to computers quite thoroughly.

I would chalk it up to Japan’s weird obsession with sticking with certain pieces of technology while being ravenous early adopters with others. Forget credit cards, they never even made it to checks; rent, bills, even salaries are still paid in cash, for example. But they sucked up laserdisk players as fast as they could be made.

Jeff Morgan June 9, 2012 at 3:04 am

When Japanese friends see my left-handed pen, they react with a little disbelief. There’s this stronger sense of doing things a standard way, common to everyone.

I can easily imagine that since your older bosses use faxes, that is the professional thing to do, and everybody does it. Doing it a different way is strange, like a left-handed pen, and it’s not cool.

I predict the existence of other representations of greater business-culture inertia in Japan than the US.

Andrew' June 9, 2012 at 5:39 am

Did your left-handed pen arrive in the mail outside the box?

Simonini June 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I’ve never seen a chiral pen.

Miles June 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

What the hell is a left-handed pen?

Miles June 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Okay, so the internet comes to the rescue :
Regardless, I don’t think it’s unique to Japanese to “react with a little disbelief” when you tell them about your left-handed pen.

John_D June 9, 2012 at 7:47 am

Compelling anecdote to explain positive network effects. All other things being equal, fax is 100% inferior to email. But the interconnectivity of this medium has increased its value so greatly that it’s now preferred.

derek June 9, 2012 at 10:07 am

Demographics. I did a job recently for an older gentleman who had his hearing impaired by a stroke. He communicates with his son via fax. Easy, fits many capabilities.

The quarter or so of the Japanese population that is over 65 will use something familiar and easy.

Saliency June 11, 2012 at 9:46 am

Related to demographics there is aggressive sales of them to older people. An older relative of mine has one that they never use. They recently bought a new one primarily because the sales person was pushing it. Every time I call I ask if they have gotten or sent a fax yet. Six months in and the fax has still seen no use.

Thomas J. Webb June 9, 2012 at 10:31 am

It’s not a simple matter to send signatures or hand-drawn pictures over e-mail. Maybe it’s becoming easier with tablets but it’s that much simpler with a fax machine. Also, keep in mind that the fax grew in popularity more in the first place when it wasn’t possible for most computers to type the Japanese language (these days, cell phones can even do it but it wasn’t a simple matter in the 70s or even 80s).

anon June 9, 2012 at 9:50 pm

We are in the US near DC, and in our small business have seen fax use decline since 2002 from approximately 5 to 7 per day to 2 per month mid-2012.

We now see many more Word documents and PDFs attached to email. Most businesses we deal with now scan all paper and convert it to PDFs and then shred the paper, as most are using scanners for paper or converting non-PDF files to PDFs. We regularly exchange signed contracts with all of our vendors and clients using PDFs.

The only folks who still like to use fax (and landline fax only) are involved in intelligence and national security, and even they are using it less with us.

We use and like the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500, and have 3 in our small office. Worth every penny, as we no longer keep many paper files (be sure you have a solid and reliable back up system in place…).

Isaac Crawford June 9, 2012 at 11:41 am

Are all of these things that they are faxing handwritten or made with manual typesetting? The article talks about how difficult it is to type Japanese, but I’m willing to be that the vast majority of the things being sent by fax were made on a computer. That makes sending faxes even more puzzling. Seems like more work to fax than just hitting the send button.

TallDave June 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Well, as Paul Krugman has noted, the fax machine is more important than the Internet.

Mike June 10, 2012 at 9:28 am

It’s not just handwriting – it’s also maps. Japan doesn’t have the traditional “#, Street, City, State” address system that the US has. The fax is very efficient for directions in Japan.

Mike Licht June 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

From the WaPo article:

“The government’s long-standing monopoly on phone lines kept high-speed digital Internet rates relatively high — particularly compared with South Korea, where the government promoted cheap broadband use.”

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