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Low-tech Japan

When you see the words "technology" and "Japan" appear together in the media, it's usually in the context of "Wow, Japan is a high-tech wonderland so many years ahead of us!"

Those of us living in Japan see a much more varied and complex picture. Thus, it was nice to come across the BBC's Revealing Japan's low-tech belly, a look at the computer-clumsy, Internet-inexperienced portion of the country that will never use the living room VCR as a clock (because it's been blinking "12:00" for the past nine years).

When the PC revolution came, I was anything but impressed by the speed of adoption in Japan; as the article points out, folks in the older generation remained – even now – amazingly fearful of the devices. The main reason, I would say, is simply that strange, universal problem of seniors fearing computers – though that doesn't stop the culturologists from trying their hand at more contrived explanations. The ones I've heard over the years have been uniformly humorous, ranging from "the West is a keyboard culture" (what, "Westerners" are born knowing how to type?) to "Japanese don't have room in their homes for computers" (wrong; A4-sized and smaller laptops, taking up no more space than a large book, have been in Japanese stores since the 80s).

That may not be such a bad thing now, as the world gets ready to move on from PCs to tablets and mobile devices, but is Japan particularly advanced there? Certainly mobile phones have spread far and wide throughout the country, evolving into "feature phones" with all kinds of nifty offerings: great cameras, e-wallets, 1-seg TV reception, and much more. And DoCoMo's innovative i-mode was a huge step forward in bringing the Internet and thousands of mobile services to the phone.

But. I'll stick my neck out here and go against the tide of journalists who make mobile phones an easy symbol of the Japanese tech wonderland: I've never been too impressed by those Japanese mobile phones. They've got some great hardware features, sure. But those features are always bundled together by a multitude of model-specific interfaces, all competing to be first in ugliness and clunkiness. (They seem to have been designed by the same persons behind the Japanese HDD recorders I've owned, which present an impenetrable mess of uncoordinated buttons and unfathomable screens.) There's simply no thought put into elegance or ease of use in these phones, and it's no wonder that the iPhone has caught them off-guard and is eating up the market. (What future is there for the i-mode's limited, proprietary version of the Internet, too, when devices like the iPhone bring the real thing?)

Let's be clear on one thing: None of the tech aversion that the BBC article or that I might mention is peculiar to Japan! If huge swaths of Japanese oldsters (and a few youngsters too) remain befuddled by computers and feature phones, well, that's a pretty normal sight anywhere on Earth. And to be sure, we've seen (and will continue to see) some really nice hardware, innovative software, game-changing Internet services, and brilliant tech inventors come out of Japan.

All of which is normal. Japan overall certainly isn't a low-tech backwater, but neither is it racing toward Star Trek land and leaving everyone behind.

Anyway. While I appreciate the BBC article's reality check on the tech topic, it does run afoul of what I'll deem Traveler's Law: Any exposition on "cultural contrasts" must contain at least one bit of unsupported silliness. Here's a small handful:

First, a Hitachi employee, discussing paper-based processes in banks and government offices, says:

"Do you see the pattern here? Japanese aren't all that happy about spiteful machines and distrust automation."

Wrong. Perhaps many Japanese aren't comfortable with machines, but needless to say, countless others love their computers and gadgets, are blissfully inventing new machines, and are pushing new frontiers in automation. What a dumb comment. (Traveler's Law #2: Any statement beginning with "the Japanese" [or "the French", "Ghanaians", "Westerners", whatever] is 99% certain to be a dumb statement.)

Next, we have an example of the empty "cultural contrast" claim that just hangs there:

This technological divide goes hand in hand with Japan's much touted "Galapagos" status. Like the plants and creatures on those islands Japan's tech standards and business practices have developed a unique character incompatible with anything beyond its borders.

Really? I'm not saying there isn't "a unique character incompatible with anything beyond its borders", but what would it be? What are its characteristics, and what's the evidence for it? Alas, as is so common, the article tosses out the assertion and then runs along without backing it up.

Finally, there's a strange bunch of quotes from a blogger named Onda:

Mr Onda thinks this Galapagos approach was an error perpetuated by the civil servants.

"Anything as foreign and revolutionary as Apple's WYSIWYG GUI operating system will never be accepted, even if it was the best. You see Apple had not paid respects to the Japanese bureaucrats," he said.

Huh? Earlier the article told us that the iPhone was going great in Japan; now this fellow is saying it "will never be accepted"? Or is he rather referring to bureaucratic reaction from decades past? The article's writer doesn't make this at all clear; read the article and see if you can figure it out.

The text continues:

To illustrate this, Mr Onda relates a story from 1996 when Apple was keen to puts its computers into Japanese schools. The answer from the Japanese education minister at the time was a curt "No thank-you".

A puzzled Michael Spindler (then Apple's CEO) asked his Japanese colleague when they might return to try again.

In response, his colleague said: "When the 60's-era floor indicator above the ministry's elevator door goes digital."

Again: Huh? What's the relevance of this to anything? Japan did bring PCs into schools, at least to some degree, and did so using foreign software (more Windows than Mac OS, but that's besides the point). So what is this cryptic passage trying to say? I don't know; that's where the article ends.

Well. Those quibbles aside, the article's topic is still an interesting one. But whenever you come across "cultural contrast" claims, listen with this question in mind: Is the claim actually supported, or just asserted and left hanging? I think you'll start to see how incredibly common the latter is.  

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