Japan: Confounding Expectations

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Having recently returned from my second trip to Japan, I have frequently encountered the common perception amongst non-Japanese that the country remains at the forefront of efficient use of technology. During this visit, I was again struck by how far this is from the reality of the country: a place of fascinating contradictions which seems familiar while simultaneously defying expectations.

Rather than Japan being leaders in the use of electronic and digital technology to bolster efficiency, examples abound of underemployed staff members and paper-strewn computerless offices. In banks and public council offices, even in car hire companies, you are greeted by a helpful employee who tells you which queue to join or hands you a numbered slip for the waiting system; tasks performed elsewhere in the world by signs or paper dispensers. Once into the heart of such establishments you are struck by the lack of computer monitors on desks, at first assuming that tablets have been adopted, replacing their clunky, desk-cluttering predecessors. However, after being asked to complete and sign the numerous required forms, you realise that the majority of administrative tasks are still paper-based. It is not unusual in banks to see white-gloved employees transporting cash from one department to another on little metal trays, while expecting to be able to pay for goods and services by credit card remains a game of Russian Roulette. Overseas visitors may find this all results in frustratingly inefficient and time-consuming encounters but the locals are accustomed to it and take it all in their stride, gripe-free.

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Part of the explanation seems to be a simple case of job creation; with a population of 127 million people, Japan has a relatively low unemployment rate of around 3.5%. In spite of Japanese scientists’ work in the field of robotics, people have not been replaced by machines, as the country attempts to provide jobs for as much of the population as possible. This results in a staff member on every floor of multi-level car parks to usher you to a vacant spot and workers who direct traffic around roadworks, even at 2am, at points where there are already temporary traffic lights. Although having never officially been classed as a Communist country, there is much about Japan which feels familiar to anyone who has been in Russia, China or former Soviet countries: the concrete apartment blocks, the transport system timed to the second, the school children being drilled for mass games and the public announcement systems present in even the smallest of hamlets. This focus on the combined welfare of the population has been combined with, what some have speculated as, a distrust of the digital world. In the 1980s, through companies such as Sony and Panasonic, Japan was at the forefront of electronic technology, providing the world with its first walkman, laptop, VHS recorder, solar cells and LCD screen. Now though, in spite of one of the world’s highest R&D budgets, examples of innovation are harder to come by and their tech firms seem to have missed the boat in the digital arena, falling far behind companies like Apple and Samsung. While people in Japan have access to high-speed broadband, less than 40% of the population use it regularly, people are not taking up online commerce at the same rate as other countries and the development of website design seems slow, with sites being unwieldy and lacking in useful information. Some Japanese friends have speculated that the Japanese government, one accustomed to unchallenged authority, prefers that the population don’t have easy, unfettered access to the range of information and outside influence that the Internet provides. This theory could be supported by the Japanese education ministry’s refusal of Apple’s 1996 offer to provide computers for the country’s schools.

In many ways Japan feels frozen in the 1980s. Since the economic bubble burst in 1989, they have managed to keep their economy afloat and employ their ageing population but much of the country’s infrastructure now feels tired and worn. At the height of the entrepreneurial spirit of the 80s boom, coastal areas became littered with luxury hotels and spa facilities. Barely at the end of the summer season, these edifices now stand empty and shut up, contributing to the feeling of faded glory *. Meanwhile, areas associated with the bling and vibrance of Japan, such as the tourist-draw of Shinjuku in Tokyo, have an almost retro feel to them now, being places of nostalgia for a Japan that only really existed for a decade, no longer at the forefront of the modern age.

Remnants of the country’s technological past achievements still remain impressive, most notably the Shinkansen trains, which whisk people from city to city in complete comfort, their 300kmph motion virtually imperceptible from inside. However, the overwhelming impression the country gives is of one now content to exist apart from developments happening elsewhere in order to maintain a status quo. Perhaps, just as it did during the Sakoku (locked country) period from the 17th to 19th centuries, it is an attempt to circumvent excessive outside influence while doing what it can to survive the choppy seas of international economics and protect its own population.

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* (As an aside and a suggestion for anyone intending to travel to Japan, the coastal town of Toba in Mie prefecture, home to an aquarium and the Mikimoto pearl farm, provided the most mouthwateringly delicious, melt-in-the-mouth fish and seafood I have ever had. The Kaigetsu Ryokan, with its friendly hospitality and wonderful breakfasts, is highly recommended).

16th October 2015

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