If TV and movies are to be believed, then Japan is a country filled with robots mechs, talking toilets, and futuristic transportation. Perhaps more than any other country in the world, it has a reputation as a technological wonderland. But is this image of advancement justified?
Well, yes and no (with a capital N). The technological reality in Japan is quite bizarre — equal parts of exciting innovation, dusty retrofuturism, and downright outdated analog systems. On one hand, they have some of the fastest trains in the world, but on the other, the companies which run them still use fax machines and pagers!
Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time here will recognize these strange contradictions in the state of Japanese technology. The bar is incredibly warped and uneven, advanced in some areas but painfully archaic in others. Let’s take a look at how Japan came to have its high-tech reputation, and in what ways it still holds up nowadays.
A Brief History of Japanese Tech
For much of Japan’s history — as in the rest of the world — innovation was a slow process. Aside from the odd new gadget finding its way over the sea from China, the best that could be hoped for was some incremental advancement in irrigation techniques or blacksmithing.
In Europe, the old state of affairs thankfully came to an end with the dawn of the Enlightenment in the late 17th century. The following century or so of scientific inquiry laid the groundwork for all the technological advancements of the industrial revolution. Since the mid-1600s, the shogunate of Japan had largely sealed the country off from the outside world, meaning that the effects of this Western ideological shift never reached their shores.
When a fleet of heavily-armed American ships forced Japan at gunpoint to end its isolation in 1853, the new, modern world founded upon Renaissance ideals flooded into the Japanese consciousness. Led by the Meiji Emperor, Japan embarked on a campaign of technological catch-up. This meant their very own industrial revolution from 1870 onwards.
The events of the following 75 years likely don’t need to be reiterated here, so instead let’s skip ahead to the post-war period. Despite the defeat at the hands of the Allies, Japan managed to avoid economic catastrophe by submitting to US occupation and receiving the economic benefits of assimilation into the new world order.
Things went better for Japan than anyone could have reasonably imagined, and the following decades saw the country experience what is widely regarded as an economic miracle. This was thanks in part to the co-ordinating efforts of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which promoted the low-cost import of new technology.
During this economic boom, Japan itself became a hub of innovation. It’s thanks to this that many of the biggest names in consumer electronics are Japanese, such as Canon, Sony, and Panasonic. Then the second largest economy in the entire world, Japan was churning out wave after wave of new products — everything from video game consoles to portable music players. It was the PR effect of these new entertainment technologies that really won Japan its worldwide fame as a futuristic tech giant.
However, all good things come to an end. After the Tokyo stock market crash in the early 1990s, Japan experienced what is known as the Lost Decade: a period of economic stagnation lasting until 2001. In many ways, the economic slowdown which resulted is still in effect, thanks in part to the rapidly aging population and low birth rate. While their giant neighbor China is on a stratospheric trajectory, the Japanese might be forgiven for thinking that their best days are behind them.
It’s not all bad news, however. The effect of that golden era can still be seen in many ways. For example, around 90% of Japanese people go on to attend university. With a highly-educated workforce and established tech culture, the country still leads the way in many advanced technology fields such as silicon semiconductors and AI.
All of this goes some way to explaining the strange juxtapositions in Japanese technology. The process of boom and bust created a great wave of wealth and innovation followed by near-total stasis. For this reason, it sometimes feels like Japan is trapped in a 1990s dream of the future. On the other hand, the strong culture of research and intellectualism which the boom years established has left a solid legacy for the innovators of the future to build upon.
Next let’s look at which parts of Japanese life are all shiny and chrome, and which are in serious need of an update.
As the country continues to invest its resources in developing new technologies across a broad range of fields, there’s plenty to praise in the STEM culture of Japan.
The Car Industry
Almost anyone could name at least two or three Japanese car companies off the top of their head. This is one area in which Japan has enjoyed considerable technological advancement, thanks in part to the automation of assembly processes using robots. Car firms like Nissan and Honda were some of the first to do so, and they continue to streamline these robotic processes today.
Not content to just make the cars, the machines are also rising up to become the drivers too. Everyone is familiar with self-driving cars from tech firms like Google, but Japan is also a major player in such AI technology. Recently the tech company SoftBank revealed their autonomous public bus which can handle the packed streets of busy cities using cloud computing data.
Another area in which Japanese automotive manufacturers are ahead of the curve is electric cars. Spurred on by tightening emissions regulations, companies are moving towards an electric-only future. In fact, Nissan has vowed to create electric models of all of its cars from 2020 onwards. There’s still a lot of work to be done, however, as at the moment only about 1.1% of cars in Japan are electric.
Aside from the car manufacturing industry itself, there are a few futuristic touches to actually getting behind the wheel in Japan. In the inner cities, you’ll find hundreds of mechanized, space-saving underground parking towers that can store your car safely beneath street level, then deliver it to you up on the ground when requested.
Robotics and AI
Japan is famous for its robot mechs, as seen in manga and anime like the long-running Gundam franchise. It’s not all fantasy though; they also have the largest number of working robots in the world, with an estimated 300,000 units. This is almost a quarter of the entire global figure! Since the 70s, Japan has been holding on to this position as the world leader in industrial robotics, and the applications of the technology continue to broaden into other fields.
For example, after the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear incident at Fukushima, a robot named MHI-MEISTeR was developed to decontaminate the affected power plant. Medicine in Japan is also set to undergo a robotic transformation, with research into robotic surgery which will eliminate the need for invasive procedures, and one day make the clunky hands of humans look inelegant by comparison.
A prime example of Japan’s weird mix of high and low tech is the recently-announced robot COBOTTA. This machine has no other function than to stamp documents with a hanko seal, thereby automating a time-consuming part of the bureaucratic process. That’s right, instead of doing away with the medieval technology, some companies will just buy expensive robots to carry out the pointless admin instead… It’s like inventing a robotic farmer to whip your ox, instead of just buying a combine harvester.
Consumer electronic brands were the hallmark of independent technological development in Japan throughout the boom years. The brands which in those days became household names worldwide are still powering on, despite the fact that some of their revenue streams have since been thwarted by the smartphone. How many of you own a Sony Walkman nowadays?
Another challenge is that the rug was largely swept from under the feet of these businesses when they were undercut by China and Korea’s growing markets. Still fighting on strong, the likes of Panasonic and Sony continue to innovate while using the reputation of Japan as a hub of high-quality manufacturing to their advantage.
One area in which Japanese consumer electronics seems unshakable is video games. Since the days when my father first played Asteroids on his Atari in the 70s, Japan has been synonymous with electronic entertainment. The industry is still going strong, and although Japan is no longer the only stronghold of video game development, they still hold an edge even after other countries have joined the fray. Anyone who enjoys playing on their ultra-portable Nintendo Switch can attest to that.
With the next generation of Sony Playstation on the way later this year, it looks like Japan will continue to spearhead the video game tech industry for some time to come.
Smartphone and Battery Technology
Japanese phone manufacturers have largely fallen out of favor nowadays. While Korea’s Samsung and California-based Apple battle it out for the top spot, China’s Huawei has snapped up much of the budget phone market. However, Japan isn’t simply standing by and watching with envy. In fact, many of the components which go into these devices are made in Japan.
The tech sectors of the big Asian and Western economies heavily rely on Japanese parts and production equipment, in part because Japanese firms have access to the best-purified silicon. As devices like these become faster and faster, higher grades of silicon are required. Japan also leads the way in producing the microscopic circuitry printers, known as steppers, which are needed to create the complex chips.
Batteries are another area in which Japan has a proven track record of technological advancement. In fact, the smartphone in your pocket almost definitely has a lithium-ion battery inside. Japanese engineer Akira Yoshino recently received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions to the technology.
The next big step in Japanese battery tech is already well underway. The Murata Manufacturing Company, with which Akira is associated, has recently developed a new generation of all-solid-state batteries. It’s thought that these will be able to provide the long charges required for a new wave of innovative wearable tech.
High-speed Rail Travel
Rail transport in Japan perhaps best exemplifies the divide between futuristic glamor and retro frustration. In central Tokyo, the train system is a confusing, messy overlap of networks from around a half-dozen private companies — an argument against libertarianism given physical form.
However, if you’re traveling between cities, then you can do it in style and comfort on the famous bullet trains, known as the Shinkansen. They can reach up to 320km/h but run incredibly smoothly. These luxury trains have been in operation since 1964 and still feel as fresh and futuristic as in the old days.
China managed to one-up the Shinkansen by building its own high-speed rail network, with trains that can reach up to around 430km/h. However, Japan looks set to reclaim its crown as the high-speed railway capital of the world with the Chūō Shinkansen, currently being built between Tokyo and Nagoya.
The sleek design of this train makes it look like a cross between an Olympic bobsled and a Star Wars fighter ship. It operates on maglev technology, which means that the carriages slide along with near-zero resistance because they actually hover slightly above the tracks below! This means they should be able to reach speeds of up to 603km/h. Japan is a world-leader in the semiconductor technology which makes this sci-fi effect possible.
A few flagship innovations are enough to convince tourists that everyone in Japan lives futuristically, but the reality for a huge number of people here is that daily life is largely mired in the 1990s.
Cash Culture Nightmares
Head out along any of the bar streets in Tokyo and you’ll notice the large number of ‘Cash Only’ signs outside the shops here. Although things are changing slowly with the advent of cheap card readers and electronic payment systems, the reality is that Japan is primarily a cash-based economy.
If you’re used to using internet banking back home, congratulations, you live in the 21st century. In Japan, however, this service is largely unheard of; the vast majority of the consumer banking business is done analog. Not only that, chip and pin isn’t even the norm! If you open a bank account here, you’ll receive a retro 1970s-style ‘passbook’ and have to check a box on the forms to even receive a basic cashcard. Getting a debit/credit card for shopping online requires another round of paperwork and a long wait.
If you want to withdraw money from your bank’s ATM you’d better do it within their business hours; all of the ATMs are indoors and close when the banks do. You can use the third party ones in every convenience store, but it’s strange nonetheless.
To illustrate how archaic all of this is, let me describe my rent-paying process. Back home I can automate it all online. In Japan, I have to withdraw the rent money from my account, go to my landlord’s bank’s gigantic ATM terminal, type in all of his details manually, and drop my cash into the machine. For bills, I receive payment slips every month and have to go in person to the convenience store to pay them in cash. If that’s what the future looks like, then take me back to the past.
Paper, Paper Everywhere
For reasons which are known only to the Ancient Ones who organize Japanese bureaucratic systems, many organizations in Japan are stubbornly resistant to digitization. Paper-based systems still rule at all of the local government ward offices, and even at the regional immigration bureaus.
To register your new address with the authorities, you have to go in person. There’s no online system for doing so. At the ward office, you’re unlikely to ever see an old PC at the counter. In fact, you’d be lucky to even see one buried among the forest of filing cabinets behind it! When you have your consultation, at some point your advisor will probably have to forage through this paper wilderness for the forms you need. Amazingly, some organizations even have their staff input all of the paper data into a computer by hand afterwards, rendering the entire thing a total waste of time for all involved.
One wonders if they refuse to modernize because it would surely cause a wave of unemployment. The jobs of ten government clerks could be done by a single worker with the proper tools and streamlined procedures, or if the processes were simply moved online.
Whatever the reason, the result is that communication between ward offices is basically non-existent. Moving from one ward to another? You’ll need to go to both offices to retrieve paper forms with all the proper stamps and seals, since there’s no centralized computer system linking them, even though they might only be a few miles apart.
Retro Business Practices
If innovation is the engine of technological development, stubbornness is surely the spanner in the works. This much is clear in Japanese business, where the culture is still extremely traditional. This means that the older generation of traditionalists hold the power in a huge number of big firms, insulated from the voices of their younger employees by layers of strict hierarchy.
Although it’s certainly not true across the board, many of these old-timers simply don’t like change, taking pride in sticking to the same procedures which worked for them back in the 80s. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the fact that the Japanese cybersecurity minister recently admitted to never having used a computer in his life. The most bizarre part was that he announced this as if it were a point of pride, rather than a damning indictment of his inability to do his job!
This neo-ludditism trickles down through the ranks of Japanese organizations. In my time teaching business English, I came across young, bright people still carrying pagers because their company required it! You’ll also see frustrated interns sitting in Starbucks, typing away on company laptops which look like they’re still running Windows 2000.
Although those examples are quite extreme, one ubiquitous piece of retro-tech still reigns supreme in Japanese business: the fax machine. Almost every business still uses them, and around a third of households too. Meanwhile, in other modern countries, these machines basically symbolize obsolete technology.
You may have seen recently that a Japanese doctor spoke out online against the byzantine system for reporting COVID-19 data: first handwriting the figures, then faxing them to the government stats offices. Essentially, many Japanese organizations leave the Jaguar of email and cloud computing in the garage, and hop on their trusty ol’ horse and cart instead.
If you watch the news in the UK or the USA, you’ll be used to a sensory overload of scrolling banners, CGI graphics, and slick transitions. In comparison, TV news in Japan seems like an amateur production. Instead of witnessing pundits walking through green-screen worlds of facts and figures, you’ll instead see them fumbling around with flip-charts and cardboard cutouts.
In fact, pretty much all Japanese TV seems to suffer from this retro affliction. Even on serious discussion shows, the sets look like something from a 1970s episode of The Price is Right. Anyone with a copy of Adobe After Effects could likely cook up a more futuristic-looking sight in an afternoon.
Entertainment media is another area in which Japanese life seems stuck in the past; physical media such as DVDs and CDs are still ubiquitous. If the idea of renting a DVD became alien to you even before the death of Blockbuster, you’ll be amazed to hear that the industry is still alive and well here. Of course, the big streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Disney+ are available in Japan, and they are extremely popular. However, unlike in other countries, these streaming services still face genuine competition from the old heavyweights who simply refuse to die quietly.
The same is true for language-learning technology. One of the most jarring anachronisms that I’ve witnessed in Japan is the electronic dictionary. Once a genuinely useful innovation, these devices were rendered obsolete the moment smartphones gained access to Google. Despite that fact, a not-inconsiderable number of Japanese students in their 40s and up will still whip out this ancient little device whenever they hear a new English word. They’ll even set their smartphone aside to do so!
What’s Next for Japanese Tech?
In the 19th century, when Commodore Matthew Perry dropped anchor with his fleet, Japan was forced to wake up to the fact that it was largely a medieval nation surrounded by a rapidly modernizing world. Now that much of the world has again accelerated ahead of Japan in terms of how the everyday citizen lives their life, another great leap might be needed to shake off the cobwebs of 20th-century tech.
Everyday life for people in America is miles ahead in many areas, while its advanced industries continue to lag behind by several years. On the other hand, in Japan there’s a huge disconnect between the nation’s high-level research and manufacturing capabilities and the technological reality for everyday people.
Japan’s declining population will soon leave a shortfall of workers to fill its archaic and convoluted systems, meaning modernization is a must now more than ever.