fax machines japan

The fax machine: The little box that wouldnt die

Posted on January 11th, 2013 · Posted in Photocopier guides
The unstoppable rise of the PDF has changed our image of the fax machine dramatically. Once upon a time (i.e. the early 1990s) the fax was an essential piece of big business kit; the fastest way, bar none, of getting a large document into the hands of a distant business associate. Twenty odd years later, however, when a document the size of a Russian novel can be beamed directly to your recipient’s pocket in an instant, things are a little different. Unwieldy, screeching, uncool and old - the fax is the doddery grand-aunt of the hardware family.

Or, at least, that’s what popular opinion would suggest. Yet the long predicted death of the fax machine is yet to arrive.

Why people are still faxing

So, you may well be asking, who is still faxing? And why are they doing it? Have they not heard of e-mail? The answer has to do with trust. The truth is there are still a sizable number of business people who trust the fax machine more than any of the technology that followed it. For them, if a signature is required straight away, the fax is the preferred line of communication. Yes, a sheet fed scanner might be quicker and require less consumables than a fax, but, for a business person who has relied upon faxing since the 80s, the desire to make the switch is weighed against thirty years of successful use.

Plus, the perception that new hardware has replaced the fax is not accurate. Rather it has absorbed it. Detractors will point to the rapid fall in the sales of fax machines over the last decade but the more astute observer will note the massive rise in the sales of multifunction printers, most of which will offer the option to fax. Add to that the rise of the online fax service, allowing users to integrate their fax stream with their email system, and you get a clear picture of the fax adapting to, as opposed to being eliminated by, fresher innovations.

For the younger generation of business people, however, affection for faxing does seem unlikely to take hold. As the paperless office becomes more of a reality by the day, even this most resilient of machines may, finally, be consigned to history. Yet there is one corner of the globe in which faxing is not only still widespread but the preferred communication device for every kind of message: formal, informal, business or social. Where is this backwards, tech-phobic, slow moving backwater, I hear you ask? Why it’s Japan, the home of electronics innovation.

Japan and the fax

Faxing is ingrained in the culture of Japan in a way it’s hard to comprehend on these shores. Not only do 87.5% of Japanese business people say their company could not operate without one, 59% of households in Japan own fax machines. In fact, if you are sending birthday wishes, a thank-you note, a party invitation or a quick how-do-you-do an e-mail is considered cold, automated and aloof. A nice, warm, tactile, handwritten fax is a much friendlier way to say hi.

The reasons for this odd connection to the fax machine in a country obsessed with forward thinking and miniaturisation has its roots in Japan’s traditional love affair with hand writing.  Japan never took to the computer keyboard with the same gusto as the Western world, mainly due to the complexity of the Japanese language. Typing proficiently in Japanese was not even possible until the early 1990s.

In the boardrooms of Tokyo, handwritten documents are still the norm. A typed CV will barely be given a second glance by a Japanese HR specialist. Believing a person’s handwriting to be a crucial part of their personality, the applicant’s decision to forward their details in type indicates a desire to hide something from their future employer.

Perhaps most importantly, however, there is the fact that access to email is not as widespread as in the West. Though the country boasts the highest speed of broadband available, it also boasts some of the highest pricing thanks to the government’s monopoly on the phone lines. This means many households don’t bother with internet and many younger people choose to access the web by phone. In such a situation, the ability to fire off hard copy documents to distant recipients remains valuable.

Of course, all of this does not halt the popular reading that the fax machine is a dinosaur in the modern office. Yet the day it is finally consigned to the garbage heap has yet to come, despite talk of its arrival for more than a decade. While technology keeps threatening to leave it in the dust, it seems there is still a high percentage of the business population that find plenty of use for their good old faxes.