Fax Machines and Culture

Kosuke Okahara for The New York Times

Who could have imagined that a piece of technology so outmoded that “the Smithsonian is adding two machines to its collection” would reveal so much about a culture? And yet, the lowly fax machine, dismissed by much of the world, is still going strong in Japan. This from a New York Times article:

Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. The fax addiction helps explain why Japan, which once revolutionized consumer electronics with its hand-held calculators, Walkmans and, yes, fax machines, has become a latecomer in the digital age, and has allowed itself to fall behind nimbler competitors like South Korea and China.

But as the article goes on to explain, Japan’s love of the fax machine runs deeper than just old-fashioned stubbornness and attachment issues. Yes, Japan loves technology and has a history of innovation, but that innovation tends to be in the field of electronics, not so much computers. Why is that? Well, experts say, with a complex language like Japanese – two sets of characters and thousands of kanji (characters from the Chinese language) – keyboards have never been able to adequately capture the subtleties of the language. Many Japanese, particularly older generations, are more comfortable with handwritten notes – often faxed between locations. It’s a fascinating case of how the nuances of culture apply unseen pressures that both encourage and resist innovation.


RW3 CultureWizard is a leading provider of cross cultural training and information, primarily through the CultureWizard and CulturalTraining.com intercultural learning platforms.

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