Japan: surprisingly, sensibly and endearingly low-tech


The common image of Japan abroad is of a high-tech country — a place of robots and flashing neon lights and the latest beeping gadgets in everyone’s hands. As a British person living in Japan, I regularly get comments from people back home like: “Wow, Japan! What a high-tech world you must live in.”

Well, no. In fact, I will hazard a claim: The U.K. is a considerably more high-tech country than Japan. And please, before anyone mistakes this for just another attack on Japan, I urge you to read right to the end of the article.

Granted, Japan may have the most robots in the world, including the much-trumpeted Pepper from SoftBank, which is even supposed to be able to read human emotions. But even in these areas, Japan is falling behind. The Robotics Society of Japan notes that up until 2000, Japan produced around 90 percent of all robots in the world, but that the figure has now declined to only about 60 percent.

But in any case, how many robots do we actually meet? It’s hardly an everyday occurrence. No, in terms of actual daily life — the trains we ride on, the shops we shop at, banks, post office, city council, tax forms, etc. — the reality of life in Japan is still rather old-school: low-tech, manual, paper-based.

Walk into almost any post office, bank or estate agent and the non-Japanese visitor may be taken aback by the extensive use of paper-based and labor-intensive systems, and the relatively low level of computer usage. The modern British post office, by comparison, is far more computerized, and even more high-tech features are coming soon. These include self-service kiosks where the process of using the post office can begin while at home — via your computer — or on the go, using your smartphone. In these kiosks there will be code-operated lockers that you can use to collect goods bought online, machines for posting parcels yourself — even mortgage advice via video.

As for banks, you may have heard of Citibank’s Orchard Station branch in Singapore, with its interactive touch-screens, “display panels forming media walls” and “workbenches with iPad terminals” — now there’s high-tech for ya! By contrast, banks in Japan have none of that. Yes, there are machines that can be used for paying bills, but they are big, clunky objects that look like they’ve come straight off the set of a 1970s sci-fi film. The process of something like sending money to a travel agent on them is long and complicated and, of course, all in Japanese.

Just try presenting a foreign cheque at a Japanese bank, and — in this so-called interconnected world of finance — get ready to be greeted by expressions of shock and confusion, as if you have just asked the staff to decipher a piece of ancient Babylonian scroll. Front-counter clerk A will then go off to consult middle-of-the-office person B, who will then go off with a bemused face to ask the senior at the back, who might just know what to do with this puzzle you have presented them.

A fact that often astonishes many people from countries like the U.K. or U.S., who are used to being able to get money from the “hole in the wall” any time, day or night, is that many banks’ ATM machines close at 5 or 6 p.m. Many local banks are just that: My card, from the bank of the prefecture I live in, is not of much use even in the next big city up — it’s only 150 km away, but there are no ATM machines that will accept it there. To put it in terms of the U.S., that is like having a bank card from San Diego that you can’t use in Los Angeles!

Even in the center of Tokyo, right where the image of a fast-paced flash-flash neon high-tech maelstrom might seem the most apt, we find a rather Victorian mechanical machine reality. The ticket machines even in the bustling centers, like Shinjuku and Harajuku, are so old that they bring to mind Robbie the Robot from the 1950s. When you drop in your coins you can hear their old mechanical workings whirrling and burrling — for several seconds — before your ticket eventually burps out from the cumbersome old contraption with a noisy “krra-ching.”

How about TV? Surely here, Japan is whiz-bang waku-waku high-tech? Ah, nope: Japanese TV news and magazine-type programs normally display visuals on nothing more high-tech than a nicely printed poster, or a big card that the presenter simply holds up to the camera.

This is something that has not been seen on TV in the U.K. or the U.S. for at least 20 years! There, programs like the BBC’s “Newsnight” are swimming in the latest CGI magic. It’s not uncommon to see the reporter slotted into a virtual world where they interact with statistics and pie charts that swell up, glow in glorious multicolor, then shoot off to be replaced by more computer-generated wizardry. And in Japan … they hold up a piece of brightly colored cardboard.

But, actually, this wanton lack of high-tech systems in daily life in Japan is, for the most part, just fine. Why do we need “Star Wars”-like virtual reality CGI on TV news reports, if a nice little poster will do the job? Why do we need a visit to the post office to feel like we are stepping into a scene from “The Matrix”? As long as the lovely polite staff help us fill out the form, or gently place our package down on the (very old) weighing scale with a friendly smile, well, isn’t that enough?

Why do we need to be constantly updating stuff? What is the point if what we’ve got is still working? Thrift may seem like a very old-fashioned concept, but in these times of increased focus on “eco” — the environmentally friendly, rather than blind consumerism — a thrifty approach may be due for a comeback. Some people already long to escape from under the glamorous spell of the hedonistically high-tech. A recent article in The Guardian noted: “The Apple Watch … will let you do a million things that you can already do elsewhere, but in a slightly more difficult way.” And at a greater cost, so why bother?

In some ways, the Japanese may adapt to the fast-approaching frugal future rather well. One example in which Japan might genuinely be leading the world is in small electric cars. Japan has the second-largest number of plug-in electric vehicles in the world. The presence of small, single-seater, ecologically friendly electric cars is starting to be felt on the streets, with many Seven-Eleven shops using them.

Eventually these will hopefully herald the end of the ridiculous tendency of some Japanese to buy big four-wheel drives that are clearly far too large for the narrow city roads. As these small e-cars become normal — even cool — it seems likely that such high-tech, ecologically friendly cars will one day be the main type of vehicle on Japan’s roads. The resulting decrease in air and noise pollution and so on will considerably improve the quality of our lives. High-tech for a purpose.

You still won’t be able to use your bank’s ATM machine after 6 p.m., but so what?

Sean Michael Wilson is a British professional comic book writer living in Japan. Web: www.seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com. Twitter: @SeanMichaelWord. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    This guy needs to be careful. Telling the truth about Japan bursts the weaboo’s bubbles and will incite them to slam him as ‘anti-Japanese’. Must maintain the Japan myth!

  • M. L. LIU

    This article brings on a chuckle. ^_^ As an American who admires many things Japanese, I have to agree with the author. Yes, in my recent travels to Japan I was astonished by the many lo-tech aspects of a country with such a hi-tech image.
    As another example: Have you tried to book a concert ticket in Japan? It is nearly impossible, especially from outside the country. But on the other hand, they have got those ultra-tech Toto toilets …
    Ah, the Japanese, they are full of contradictions and that’s part of the charm of their culture.

  • Karl_Marx

    Japan has a growing number of elderly people, and they need face-to-face contact, not a confusing array of pushbuttons and touch panels.

  • Stewart

    Why not buy a PASMO or SUICA card – no need for coins at a ticket machine? ATMs in 7-11 are open 24hrs and accept international cards. Many Post Offices too have similar ATMs.

  • Janses

    iwish i could understand what the heck is that on the den ?

  • サビーネ

    I would highly appreciate it if I could get my money 24/7 and without paying these f*** service fees!! It makes me really mad!!

  • MicoB

    Once the UK has vending machines that offer hot meals, and running shoes, then we will talk.

  • Alucard

    “In these kiosks there will be code-operated lockers that you can use to
    collect goods bought online, machines for posting parcels yourself”

    Why would I want to use some lockers if a delivery guy brings everything to my doorstep (and if I’m not there, leaves a notice that includes info such as QR code for accessing a website where I can order redelivery for time that suits me)? Also, why would I want to use some locker for sending anything if a delivery guy can just come and pick the stuff from my home or office?

    I do agree with the bank part, though. However, I’m using Rakuten bank and I can withdraw money from any 7eleven (i.e. everywhere in Japan) for free several times per month (yea, after that I have to pay like 200jpy ~ 1,5eur for each withdrawal..). Also, they offer credit cards without yearly charges, even including travel insurance. Also, the IC payment cards (Edy, Suica, etc.) rock. Why would anyone want to use some crappy prefectural bank anyway..

    After setting up my utility bills to be charged from my debit card (unfortunately paper-based processes..) and setting my rent to be automatically paid on the last banking day every month (毎月おまかせ振込予約), my finances are about 70% electronic and automated. I use cash mostly at times when I have so split restaurant bill with friends because it’s easiest to use cash in such situations.

  • blackpassenger

    i wrote about this in my book, and it was published in 2008. And by the way Mr Michael, It’s “ATM,” not “ATM machine.” That’s an annoying americanism. The “m” in ATM already means machine.

  • spartan2600

    How thin-skinned are Japanophiles that such a mildly critical article needs to start with an apology?

  • Steve Jackman

    Ah, high tech Japan, where the Fax machine is still king in most offices.

    These days Japan’s idea of innovation and high-tech is to take an ancient technology like the Fax machine and load it up with useless features, like putting several blinking lights in different colors on it, have it say good morning in a female squeaky teen age voice when the clock says 9:00 am, cover it in cute pink or purple colors and jack up the price to 100,000 Yen. That in a nutshell is the state of Japanese high-tech these days.

  • Steve Jackman

    Ah, high tech Japan, where the Fax machine is still king in most offices.

    These days Japan’s idea of innovation and high-tech is to take an ancient technology like the Fax machine and load it up with useless features, like putting several blinking lights in different colors on it, have it say good morning in a female squeaky teen age voice when the clock says 9:00 am, cover it in cute pink or purple colors and jack up the price to 100,000 Yen. That in a nutshell is the state of Japanese high-tech these days.

  • J.P. Bunny

    As a Luddite, enjoy the lack of unnecessary and annoying technology.

  • Steve Jackman

    I am baffled by your patronizing and condescending tirade. I don’t think there’s any need for such personal attacks, since he has a right to express his opinion.

  • Blair

    He’s going to claim that he’s Japanese to derail your argument, but that’s just a tactic, don’t believe it for a minute. One only need read the myriad of caustic bitterness from him to know he’s just as you’ve noted…clearly. Ditto for Mr.Jackman

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    I have Japanese citizenship, and a small company that makes a profit, pays tax, and employs two Japanese staff who also pay tax.
    This is a fantastic contribution to Japan, and they are lucky to have me.

  • Liars N. Fools

    I liked the article immensely — surprisingly, sensibly, and endearingly. My favorite example are the tear away charts in news programs, and I like the news presented to school children.

    I like the commemorative transit passes that give you a nice souvenir that one can use as a book mark and the loads of PHP palm-size paperbacks to read standing on a transit train.

    I think it goes to and stems from the democratization of the tactile arts learned from school days on. It is more relaxing and amusing.

  • GBR48

    It’s a mixed bag, as indeed is the state in most countries. I bank online 24/7 in the UK, virtually, whilst in Japan, walking around with a ridiculous amount of cash in my pocket. This is in case a xenophobic ATM has a hissy fit and declines my barbarian plastic. Most larger shops do take foreign cards now, without any fuss.

    Japan really does need proper 24/7 banking though. It’s a basic lubricant for the economy and for social convenience. And for when you decide, at the last minute, that you really must have that giant plushy Totoro, whatever the telephone number on the price tag works out as.

    Western journalists often poke fun at the survival of fax machines in Japan, but my UK GP uses them to move patient data and referrals easily, quickly and securely.

    I’ve been printing my own postage at home courtesy of the Royal Mail website for years now (aside from the entire Christmas period one year, when it broke down). It saves everyone time in the Post Office when I send orders. It would be nicer to see more stamps being used though, for ordinary letter post.

    Aside from some brilliant Jdramas (and ‘AKBingo!’ of course), Japanese TV may sometimes be a bit like a bad night on ITV, but Japan is miles ahead with 1Seg. That is a work of genius and I wish it had rolled out globally. No bandwidth costs and easy to record. A PC-based player for the recordings would be nice though. DRM is the Devil’s work and will erase a good chunk of our media from history.

    Always best to avoid any unusual file format, particularly if linked to a device. I share the Japanese love of the old school CD format. Streaming usually works out to be more expensive and it is a lot more ephemeral. You can hardly give someone a digital file as a gift.

    Suica is another technology that could have gone global. And of course there are the trains. Shinkansen – a technology you can fall in love with. Trains you just want to caress that actually come on time and are not full of people having half-conversations on their mobiles. Heaven. I wish our rail managers were trained in Japan. And some of our passengers too.

    The toilets are an interesting mix. Those knee-killing, flushable holes in the ground (do Japanese people really like them?) side-by-side with the best Bog Tech on the planet.

    Android seemed to arrive late in Japan. The rich, or those who wanted to appear rich, went for iPhones, but Android smartphone take-up was slowed by the popularity of flip-phones and the remarkable set of Japanese-only features that they had. I hope they retain their popularity, and it isn’t just gaijin Jdrama lovers who stick doggedly with the flip-phones, emulating one of the most distinctive features of Japanese screen culture. If something works, stick with it. Only stupid people insist on always having the latest of everything without first evaluating its true value, safety and functionality.

    Apple watches? Do people actually use them? Aside from Apple employees, who probably don’t have a choice. It must be the first iThing that owners are actually shy about broadcasting their ownership of. Sticking with my £5 Casio. Works forever on a lithium cell.

    It’s important to value yesterday’s way of doing something when it offers us more than tomorrow’s, and still works when the power goes off or the net goes down. And in a nation with an increasingly large elderly population, it is important not to exclude those who cannot cope with new technologies from society. To do so is cruel, selfish and arrogant. Without old fashioned cheques, my grandmother would be unable to pay a bill.

    It isn’t Luddism to decline new technologies, as long as you have a good reason for it. And simply preferring an older way of doing things *is* a perfectly good reason. Keeping connections with our past is important. It prevents us from feeling alienated as the world around us changes.

  • 99Pcent

    disqus-vbekjrt7g5 and steve jackman are Japan haters and bashers. They troll all the Japan articles and put Japan and its people down. I call them sour grapes and most likely educated Chinese or Korean origin posing as others. Also more like they are one and the same person, you can sort of tell by the similarity of vitriol in their hate filled comments.

  • 99Pcent

    Such a great article, funny and interesting look into how Japan works. However the 50 cent trolls like Steve Jackman and discus-vbekjrf7g5 are filling the comment section with their sour grapes hate filled vitriolic comments. They are well known Japan bashers that should be banned from JT because in reality they are just a waste of space.

  • Chris Broad

    Absolutely spot on.

  • Frank Hansen

    I generally enjoy life in Japan, but the banking sector really needs to be modernized. In my home country, Denmark, you can withdraw cash on any ATM 24/7 everywhere in the country without having to pay fees regardless of your bank affiliation. And it has been like that for the last 30 years. Likewise you can look up your credit card payments for the last 20 years on the Internet. Not like my UC-card that only allows me to look back for three months. This has been embarrassing on several occasions when I was asked to document an expense to the financial department.

    To send money abroad is an expensive and time consuming affair. Once I was asked by an employee to present at letter from my guarantor before he could process my request. I answered that I don’t have a guarantor, and that I have been remitting funds abroad from this account since well before he was born. Now it is more smooth. The lovely Sasaki-san is handling my remittances every time I send two million yen to my saving account in Denmark. It takes about half an hour with enjoyable small talk. Once she apologized on behalf of Mizuho that I could not handle the transfer at home by using the Internet. She flushed modestly when I remarked that the present system has it advantages as it allows me to enjoy her company.

  • Hendrix

    the article didn’t mention housing, no central heating, no double glazing, washing machines not plumbed into hot water.. then there is the schools, no PCs on the teachers desks in the staff rooms, all tests written up by hand, chalkboards and chalk still in use, computer rooms with archaic PCs and software..

    • Blair

      Not so in Kushiro

    • Blair

      Not so in Kushiro

    • Charles

      I taught at a junior high school last year that had literally not a
      single computer in the classroom. Made teaching tougher and much less
      green–I had to create posters and print out visuals for everything.

      I’m teaching in a different prefecture and trying to show my students
      how to use the Spaced Repetition System (SRS) called “Anki” to memorize
      vocabulary (because whatever methods they’re using to memorize
      vocabulary, they aren’t working–they often forget all the words I teach
      them by the next week). The problem is, many of my students literally
      do not know how to use a computer (not just elderly, but junior high
      school and high school students). When I try to show them how to use the
      program hands-on, they’ll do silly things like keep trying to click the
      right mouse button! Or the IME changes to Japanese and they don’t know
      how to change it back to English. When I ask them, they say
      「パソコンを持ってない。」 (“I don’t have a personal computer [at home].”).

      realize that they all have smart phones and think those are good enough,
      but there are so many things that a personal computer can do that a
      smart phone still can’t (at least effectively and quickly enough to make
      it viable). I have an Android smartphone and an Android tablet, yet
      still spend several hours on my PC at home. Why? Because it’s far more
      efficient than using my stubby fingers to pick at little buttons on an
      imprecise screen.

      The end result of this is that instead of using
      high-tech, 21st century methods to learn English vocabulary quickly,
      they spend ages and ages using the centuries-old method of copying
      things down in their notebooks multiple times, then forgetting them soon
      after. Some people say “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Well, in my
      opinion, there is something very “broken” about forgetting 10 vocabulary
      words for every 11 new ones you learn. Technology can fix this–if
      people are willing to learn.

    • Charles

      To be fair about the central heating and the washing machines not being plumbed into hot water, I think these things are less energy-efficient, right? Given the extremely high cost of natural gas in this country, I can kind of understand this. I routinely pay 5,000 or more yen per month even though I live alone and I try to keep my showers under 10 minutes per day. I can only imagine how high the gas bill must be for someone with a family using “normal” amounts of natural gas–probably 20,000, 30,000, or more yen per month.

  • thedudeabidez

    Abe playing with toy firemen and models on TV trying to explain why he’s amending the constitution.

  • thedudeabidez

    The author would have loved it here in the ’80s. ATMs closed at 1:00 pm on Saturdays, and didn’t operate at all on Sundays. Many a Saturday meant picking up a friend’s bar tab, or vice versa.

  • tisho

    That’s because their efforts are mostly concentrated on the image, they want to build something that is cool and good looking, they don’t care about how useful or effective it is, it is the image that matters not the content. They want to be seen as this super high-tech advanced country, that’s why they focus only on the image. They build these robots and put them everywhere just to create that facade of a high-tech country, but when it comes to practical use, they can’t do anything. Fukushima is a proof of this. They barely found a single robot to use there.

  • renetchi

    Why go to bank’s ATM machine, when you can go to 24/7 Konbini ATM near your place?

  • renetchi

    Why go to bank’s ATM machine, when you can go to 24/7 Konbini ATM near your place?

  • Philippe Brondeel

    First of, i agree with the post office and the TV shows, you’re absolutely right about those things. But there are some things i do disagree with.

    Been to japan recently for a prolongued stay (5months) and didn’t really have issues when it came to getting money. Every 7/11 has an ATM and even with my foreign (Belgian) card i could get money from them. They’re very common and just so you all know, 7/11 is open every day, all day. 24/7. and so are the ATM’s inside.

    The old machinery is absolutely true though. A lot of the stations have outdated ticket machines. On the other hand, most people use things like a “suica” or “pasmo”. A digital card that you can load money onto and that also functions as your subscription if you have one. It’s just touch and go. Automaticaly substracting money for the distance you traveled when you leave the station. So i thing the ticket machines have been kindoff forgotten. They’re still used, but not as common.

    I’m sure some people will call me defensieve or a weaboo for disagreeing on some points with the author of this. But I’m just telling you my experience. There were things i found annoying or bad in Japan aswell.

  • wanderingpippin

    I understand the author is not necessarily critical of what he views as the low tech aspects of Japan. I agree that there are many such aspects, but it bothers me that the author seems to be (endearingly?) somewhat ignorant.

    For instance, regarding post services (and other delivery services), I routinely go online on my computer or smartphone to print labels and order pickup of parcels from my home. And by the way, parcels haven’t been priced by weight, but by size, for many years now, although granted at the post office they may be placed on an old scale to make sure they are not over the maximum allowed weight.

    Does the author actuall watch the TV news? There is plenty of CGI in addition to boards.

    I purchase my long distance train tickets online directly from JR and pick them up at a high tech ticket machine at the local train station.

    I live in a small city nearly as far from Tokyo as you can get. For years all the bank (including postal bank) ATMs have had a button to switch instructions to English. And city, local, prefectural banks and credit unions have been linked in a nationwide network for, gee, maybe decades? Longer than I can remember anyway. I can use my very local bank account card to withdraw money at ATMs all over the country. Post office banks are also linked nationwide and also with overseas networks. I can’t imagine what kind of prefectural bank the author is with that is as inconvenient as he states.

    As for checks (all in English from overseas banks), since they are not used here it is not surprising that your low level teller would not know what to do upon seeing one for the first time. However if you take it to the main branches of banks, which deal with international transactions they will have the relevant forms and know what to do.

  • http://www.axesent.com Benny

    Ever considered many of the “low tech” things you mention create employment in an over populated country with low unemployment.

  • Ed Price

    This article is spot on. I remember being rather surprised when I first moved to Japan by just how old-school the processes and tools of everyday life seemed to be, but grew to accept it, and even to be charmed by it. I’ve since returned to the UK, and find myself irritated by the needless digitalization of absolutely everything.