Dystopian Nation

Learned a new word, dystopian – meaning a vision for society, which has developed into a negative version of utopia, from this BBC article – Japan’s Low-Tech Belly:

Police stations without computers, 30-year-old “on hold” tapes grinding out tinny renditions of Greensleeves, ATMs that close when the bank does, suspect car engineering, and kerosene heaters but no central heating.

A dystopian vision of a nation with technology stuck in an Orwellian time warp? Not at all. These are aspects of contemporary, low-tech Japan that most visitors miss as they look around the hi-tech nation that its government, electronics industry and tourism board are keen to promote.

Despite the country’s showy internet speeds and some of the cheapest broadband around many Japanese are happier doing things the old way. Figures for internet users in Japan remain around 70% compared to neighbouring South Korea’s 82%.

And even among those online there is a divide between those who are dependent on the internet and those who could live without it.

One government poll shows that although 44% of Japanese use the internet at least once or twice a month, the rest responded that they use it “hardly at all” or “not at all”.

Considering Japan’s top heavy society of over 50s, many of whom have not got to grips with the internet, and who make up 30% of the population and that figure begins to make sense.

Many of Japan’s older men – who are those most likely to run a business – have a marked preference to stay offline even in the office, says Tokyo-based entrepreneur Terrie Lloyd.

“There is a clear cut-off for Japanese bosses who know how to use PCs and mobile web-capable devices and those who don’t,” he said.

Some say this technophobic demographic helps explain why many of Japan’s industries do not benefit from IT.

“The world shifted into an entirely new paradigm, not only of wealth creation (which moved away from manufacturing hard goods to software and intellectual property), but also of culture,” says Alex Kerr, author of an in-depth analysis of Japan’s contemporary ills, Dogs and Demons.

“Oblivious to all this, Japan’s government ministries, colleges, and big industry went on doing everything the old time- tested Japanese way.”


“Japanese banks, post offices, government offices, all are staffed with three to five times the employees because they must do every process once on paper and then again on computer,” says Taro Hitachi a technical editor and patent reader at Hitachi.

For anyone who has spent much time in Japan, the article states the obvious, but in the land of Suica, vending machines, and never-late public transportation it still surprises me at how low-tech rules Japan – especially with easy access to cheap fiber optic connectivity.  Don’t know why I expect it to change. Offices are a case study for inefficiency, where everything is still done by paper – you still have to get approved up the organization hierarchy by physically getting a document stamped – no wonder they have to work 16 hr days.  I wonder if their senority-based  pay system (unlike performance pay) contributes to this – a low-tech boss wants to keep the perception of power over their tech-savy underlings.  Low-tech is great  – slow food, slow life, hospitality – but high-tech also has its advantages (flat empowered organizations, remote workers, efficiency).

In his blog Taro Hitachi, a pen name, gives the full version of his comment:

Until the 1960s, Japanese had problems with surplus population needing make-work having three to five guards waving their arms aimlessly directing traffic while four workers repair a 2-inch pothole in the road. To this day, the majority of gas stations are full-service with half dozen guys in jump suits and a couple girls in uniform shorts (winter or summer) to wash your windows and empty our ash trays. Why? Because self-service gas is “dangerous”—actually it was dangerous since sloooowly self-service stations are making a dent in the market (maybe 15%). Likewise, most bank ATMs close by 5pm to 7pm because no bank employees would be on hand if a machine—oh the horror—ate a bank card. During bank hours 9 to 3, larger bank ATMs are staffed with a half dozen part-time employees because the Japanese public is so old and dotty they are afraid of the machines. Japanese banks, post offices, government offices, all are staffed with three to five times the employees because they “must” do every process once on paper and then again on computer. The worst case is the suffering of Japanese nurses who AVERAGE 12+ hour days because they have to do update their patient charts on computers after the end of the work day–UNPAID.
Do you see the pattern here? Japanese aren’t all that happy of about spiteful machines and distrust automation.

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1 Response to Dystopian Nation

  1. Taro Hitachi says:

    Thanks for reposting my BBC interview.

    Another peeve I have with lo-tech Japan is the public policy of GROSSLY inflating Japan’s number of “employed robots” and claiming to have more working robots any country in the world.

    I specifically know that old-fashioned routers that were pushed along a funky sheet-metal templates/stencils by compressed air to cut plastic faceplates at Hitachi Odawara Works were factiously counted as “robots.”

    My grandfather, who was a master machinist at Western Electric in 1939, made the same kind of “pneumatic router jigs.” He would be greatly amused that in Japan he would be called a “roboticist” and a “production engineer.” Perhaps the reason for this is that 90 percent of the time when I meet an “engineer” in Japan I discover they don’t have any kind of engineering degree.

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