Commentary: COVID-19 reveals how low-tech Japan actually is - and has chosen to be

Commentary: COVID-19 reveals how low-tech Japan actually is - and has chosen to be

Japan, despite its high-tech reputation, has very low-tech tastes, says Financial Times’ Leo Lewis.

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tokyo
Footmarks to indicate for customers to keep distance from each other in the queue toward to the checkout counters amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a Seven-Eleven convenience store in Tokyo, Japan April 13, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

TOKYO: As Japan has slowly contorted itself into a life of COVID-19 confinement, two books have been fighting for the top spot on Amazon.co.jp.

One is the Japanese translation of Albert Camus’ 1947 classic La Peste, in which the horrors of a cholera outbreak are used to dissect the human condition.

The other is a still unreleased, 1,072-page guidebook for the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The book (hard copy only) will go on sale in late April, about a month after the game itself – a build-your-own-island simulator – emerged to critical acclaim. 

The resurgent popularity of the Camus novel makes grim sense. But so do the huge presales of the Animal Crossing guidebook: Japan, despite a high-tech reputation, can be very low-tech in its tastes.

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In most countries, gamers seeking to crack the secrets of a new release on Nintendo’s WiFi-enabled, state-of-the-art portable console, would head straight to the internet.

Japan – the country that pioneered the machine – mass-orders a book on which you could break a toe.

An isolated example?

No, not in a country where large parts of the public and private sectors still insist upon formal communications by fax, where a politician can become the government’s deputy head of cyber security without ever having used a computer in his professional life and where the banking system is only now grudgingly prodding its customers towards internet transactions.

A transaction for payment via PayPay using a smartphone at a Koguma restaurant in Tokyo
File photo of a cashless transaction via PayPay at a restaurant in Tokyo, Jul 25 2019. (Photo: AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)

UNPREPARED FOR TELEWORK

The strictures imposed by the coronavirus have brought some of these Japanese paradoxes into sharper relief. We currently spend ever longer hours watching the spread of the virus discussed on TV shows that offer a masterclass in the visual techniques of yesteryear.

Despite the availability of the world’s most sophisticated digital tools, Japanese broadcasters prefer to contextualise current affairs using whiteboards, cardboard models, sponge-tipped pointing sticks and other weapons from the primary-school arsenal.

All those choices are absolutely Japan’s prerogative. Where some of them now jar, though, is when they come up against the new reality of the virus and the now unarguable recommendation that people work from home.

Japan, for various reasons, took its time reaching this conclusion but, even in the twilight weeks before emergency was officially declared and telework became a necessity, it was clear that the country’s low-tech leanings were about to be harshly exposed.

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In early March, as part of a survey, Japanese IT research group ITR asked the country’s corporations if they had systems that would allow staff to work remotely. 28 per cent said that they did; 27 per cent said they were thinking about it; while the remaining 45 per cent either weren’t even considering it or didn’t know.

These figures imply a stubbornness that requires commitment – both practical and ideological.

About the time the ITR report was published, Japan was commemorating the ninth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami – a disaster that demonstrated the vulnerability of companies, government and infrastructure and which evinced pledges that lessons would be learnt.

In that light, Japan – at a terrible price – was given a decade’s head start on preparing for mass disruption, and the sub-30 per cent telework readiness is disappointing.

LEGAL ROADBLOCKS

Elements of the problem, though, are baked in at the legal level.

The number of commuters in Tokyo's notoriously overcrowded transport system has dropped
The number of commuters in Tokyo's notoriously overcrowded transport system has dropped significantly, but some office workers can't work remotely. (Photo: AFP/Charly Triballeau)

Although parts of the private sector have attempted to reduce this, most official documents still require the physical stamp of a personal or company seal – the latter of which must mostly remain in the office.

Many of my Japanese friends – especially now that we are in tax season – say their main reason for breaking work-from-home edicts has been to go in and stamp documents. 

The insistence upon physical seals is a waste of time. Company adoption of digital contract and seal technology has been modest.

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But – to the great consternation of Japan’s professional sealmakers – the coronavirus crisis has now forced the government to take the lead in pressing for a fundamental change of the technological and legal framework behind document authentication.

From a productivity perspective alone, this would be welcome. But the symbolism would perhaps be even more powerful.

Japan’s relationship with technology has always had some very curious blind spots – often to the silent frustration of the nation that it inconveniences.

Few may want to admit any silver linings to this crisis but this is at least one contender.

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Source: Financial Times/el

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