With Japan on the crest of the economic miracle, the president of Sony Akio Morita and the Japanese Transport Minister Shintarō Ishihara they launched a manifesto, a kind of prophecy. The document, finally released in 1989, had something inside that might worry CIA officials. What it was?
At the time, the authors of this document noted, the American and Soviet superpowers had become "dependent on the initiative of the Japanese people to develop new technologies." An example above all: the production (in which the land of the Rising Sun excelled) of semiconductor chips. For Morita and Ishihara, this would have marked "the end of modernity developed by the Caucasians" and the emergence of "a new era" led by Japanese technological supremacy. They weren't all wrong at the time. Ok, but what does the fax have to do with it? Now I tell you.
Let's go fast.
2021: Japan's high-tech image is crumbling a bit. It is a country that is still debating about robots, yes: but to make the elderly work beyond retirement age. "Japan needs a software update," says the New York Times as well. THE EIGHTY YEAR OLD IT Minister of the country, Naokazu Takemoto, was mocked for his inability to keep a functioning website. Japan, it seems, is lagging behind in the global rush to digitize, despite being home to Panasonic and Mitsubishi, bullet trains and neon-lit urban life.
"In Japan, as in other Confucian countries, there is no contrast between modernity and antiquity," says the iamatologist and communication specialist Giovanni De Palma. "For this reason, alongside state-of-the-art technology, it is easy to find approaches that we would consider outdated, such as resistances on the reduction of use of cash, or the Hanko, a personal stamp required to validate documents or open bank accounts. On the other hand, if an eighty-year-old holds the role of Minister of Technology it is because, even if it seems absurd to us, many offices in Japan are held not by merit, but by seniority. In a world that runs very fast, this gap inevitably leads to problems for businesses and for the state machine. ”.
Nowhere in the world is this "decadence" better represented by a love story: that of the Japanese with the fax. The fax, guys: that thing full of dust that we keep thrown in the study room. Someone here born after 2000 doesn't even know what a fax is. Yet this XNUMXth-century technology is still a fixture in many Japanese offices, where the insistence on paper documents with personal seals persists.
The fax. Why do they find it so surprising? No: because I find it so surprising.
We might ask together why Japanese companies have patiently stood by their humming fax machines. But maybe that's not the right question to ask. Maybe we should really ask ourselves: why do we find this so surprising? That is: why does the equation "Japan equals high technology" persist so tenaciously, despite the evidence to the contrary?
An obvious culprit is "techno-orientalism".
Orientalism, the romanticization of the East in the eyes of the West. The East as a place of exoticism and mystical wisdom. Something like that happened. The burgeoning Japanese microelectronics industry has opened a new path to the orientalist fantasy: techno-orientalism, or the idea that the east could represent an exotic and technoscientific future. Think about how glittering neon-lit Tokyo helped inspire the Blade Runner aesthetic.
There is a deeper story, intertwined with modern imperialism, which feeds our idea of contemporary Japan. The fantasy of advanced technological development has long been central to defining Japan's national identity as "modern", with respect to both its Asian neighbors and the West.
The "new" Japanese identity: Oitsuke oikose
It was no coincidence that when Akio and Shintarō spoke of the rise of Japan in 1989, they framed it as "the end of modernity developed by the Caucasians." Japan entered the modern international order by looking (literally) at the cannons mounted on American steamers. In post-war negotiations, the Western imperial powers impressed Japan with their overwhelming mechanical power, reinforced by a "technology-based ideology of domination."
In response, technological development has become the top of Japan's national agenda.
In one slogan, “Oitsuke oikose” (recover and overcome) there was this whole project. The goal was to create indigenous industries, infrastructure and military capabilities that would ultimately offer Japan parity or even superiority over the West.
Technology was an old thing, though. Like the fax in 1936.
This "techno-nationalism", however, also served as a fundamental reason for the imperial expansion of Japan. In the late 30s, Japanese engineers referred to their work in the puppet state of Manchuria as "gijutsu hōkoku", or "service to the country through technology". One of Japan's first and most significant investments in faxing took place in 1936, on the occasion of the Berlin Olympics that year. A telephoto network was established between Tokyo and Berlin to transmit not only images of the event, but also a photo letter illustrated by Hitler to Nippon Electric.
Shortly thereafter, in 1941, the Japanese Planning Agency outlined its vision of how Japanese engineering combined with raw materials would free Japan from the dominance of Western technologies.
A hard-to-die dream
This national fantasy, a projection of what Japan could or should have become at the state and industry level, persisted throughout Japan's technological rise of the 80s. Just as the fax was enjoying its heyday. But the exuberant, very long post-war bubble would have burst.
During the "lost decade" of the 90s, the Japanese economy went into recession.
Fax is a symptom
Population aging and marked gender and income inequalities have become the subject of daily headlines. Loneliness more and more widespread and rampant it transforms society for the worse. From this point of view, the "slow" digitization is just one of the symptoms of a general malaise that has gripped the country since the end of its economic miracle. Yet, even now that the gap between fantasy and reality has widened, the high-tech image of Japan has remained an integral part of the popular imagination.
The persistence of this image is obvious: after all, technological prowess has been a fundamental part of Japan's national identity for over a century.