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: firstname.lastname@example.org