On my most recent trip to Japan I once again asked myself this question: Is Japan really technologically advanced?
Advanced robotics. Giant mechas. Bullet Trains.
To much of the world, Japan is seen as the world of the future. It’s no surprise the country that invented the Mario Brothers and the hybrid car is known worldwide as the most high-tech.
So when I moved to Japan, I was expecting to walk into the future. I was ready to see what life would be like in a world where technology ruled.
Instead, I felt like I stepped back in time–like, 100 years back in time.
Here are some shocking discoveries I made in Japan that proved that, maybe, it’s not so tech savvy after all.
- No Central Heating. Period.
Winters in Japan were cruel, especially where I lived; I mean, it was known as snow country for a reason. We had over two meters (that’s 6.5 feet for you Americans) pile up, and we hit lows such as -15 Fahrenheit (that’s -26 C).
Those were cold, cold days.
Even more so because Japan has no central heating, and housing insulation is slim to none.
At first, I was appalled. It wasn’t just my home, but also public institutions. Instead of have any form of central heating, my workplace often lit gas stoves in the classroom and shut the doors to trap the heat. Many of my students cowered by the stove heater between classes, scrambling for warmth. My students often clutched heating pads known as ‘hokairo’ throughout the day, holding onto it for dear life.
There were times I saw my breath while teaching class.
I mean, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen in the USA.
And it’s not just in the countryside, either. Many schools and homes in big cities like Tokyo also don’t have proper heating to battle the brutal cold of Japan’s winters.
As I sat shivering on my tatami floor with my rice-paper-thin walls, I often wondered if I was really in the 20th century, because I’m sure the samurais from hundreds of years ago spent winter in a very similar fashion (thin walls and all).
Basically, it was freakin freezin.
2. The Name Stamp
You know in those old kung fu and samurai movies, where they have a long scroll parchment full of calligraphy? And usually the lord or emperor or somebody takes out a big red stamp and pounds it on the parchment for authority, or as a signature?
Believe it or not, Japan still uses these stamps. All the time.
I remember the first time the delivery man came to my home in Japan:
“I’m going to need you to stamp your name here before I can give you the package.”
“You need my what?”
“Stamp? Oh, like… my name stamp?” (they made a name stamp especially for me, because without it I guess you can’t officially sign papers in Japan).
So I dug out my name stamp, he took out his handy-dandy red inkpad from his pocket, and I stamped his document with my seal of approval.
I used that stamp everywhere. I used it to clock in and out of work (heaven forbid we clock in using a computer!). I used it to sign my contract for my mobile plan. I used it to make a bank account.
I used it everywhere–and again, I started to wonder if I was in the 20th century or not.
All foreigners are required to have a name stamp (or hanko, in Japanese) if they plan on living in Japan long term. Without the red stamp, life just aint gonna happen.
3. Buy Stuff Online? What?
When I worked for the Japanese government, one of the most frequently asked questions I got was:
“Can I buy train tickets online?”
The answer is no. You can’t buy train tickets online–and frankly, buying anything online in Japan is a hassle.
Compared to the U.S., online shopping isn’t as prevalent either.
And forget about paying bills online. That’s far too ahead of Japan’s time.
4. Japanese People Don’t Use PCs. Really.
I often noticed that outside of work and school, Japanese people seldom used a computer. In fact, they didn’t even have a proper email address.
Whenever I asked for the e-mail addresses of my Japanese friends, they would just give me the e-mail address of their cell phone service (their SMS handle is like an email address), which baffled me…
..until I realized that they don’t have an e-mail address. At all.
Basically, Japanese people never use computers.
According to a tech study by McKinsey,
“Japanese users spend about 136 minutes a day on their PCs, ahead only of much-poorer India (64 minutes) and far behind Spain (375 minutes), Korea (359) and the US (308).”
Japanese people struggle typing on a computer keyboard because they never needed to type on one. At my previous workplace, we had to train grown Japanese adults how to type on a keyboard–even when they were typing in their native language!
Sadly, instead of use a computer, the Japanese do everything on their mobile phone.
5. Paper Forever
During my many moves, I lost my my Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) certificate. I looked on the official website and tried to inquire about how to request a copy of my test results.
The only way to request a copy was by fax. No email, no telephone, not even a mailing address. Only fax.
I recently went to Japan and stopped at the train station to exchange my Japan Rail Pass order for the actual pass. To do this, on top of the online form we filled out for the pass, we had to complete another three paper forms and wait in line to–you guessed it–get a paper pass.
“They have all this information in the computer already, why do we have to fill out these paper forms again? And they just give us this flimsy paper to act as our pass? Anybody could replicate one of these!” My friend complained as we stood in line.
“Don’t ask complicated questions like that of Japan,” I laughed. “Giving us an online pass or not making us fill out redundant paperwork is just too efficient for this country.”
Banks, offices, schools, government… no matter where you go, Japan prefers to have everything on paper. Japan is finding it hard to step into the modern world of digitized files and the cloud, which can be seen by their preference for paper forms and filing.
On the bright side, the Japanese obsession with paper makes for the best stationary in the world. Visiting a Japanese stationary store, such as Ito-Ya in Tokyo, is a definite must.
It’s About the Small Things
“Ok, so we don’t have central heating,” my Japanese friend commented. “But we do have heated toilets. That makes a big difference in the winter. And really nice, hot bathtubs.”
Japan may also not believe in email or going paperless, but the convenience stores on every block helps you mail all that useless paper or pay a bill that you should be able to pay for online. And hey, at least you can use a bullet train to get to your freezing house and sit on a heated toilet that sprays perfume and make noises to hide those nasty farts that slip out. It’s the little things in life.
Conveyor belt sushi.
Giant Robot Shows.
Warm drinks in the vending machine for those cold days.
It may not be the most necessary technology, but Japan shines when it comes to making the small pleasures in life even sweeter.
What tech problems do you face in your own country? How could yours improve?