“These photos are why I’m trapped in Tokyo forever” is the title of an essay that was published recently, first in “Medium” and then in some Greek lifestyle website; it is indeed a poetic documentation of Tokyo’s cyberpunk side, both in photography with some terrific black and white pictures and in writing, with a half-real, half-imaginary narrative. I have to admit that I enjoyed it although at some level it annoyed me somewhat: the reason was that it reaffirms the image (better, the stereotype) of “high-tech Japan”. And the reason it annoyed me was that far from being high-tech, the Japan that I see around me is, usually in a bothersome way, quite the opposite. Or, to be more accurate, it’s at the same time very high-tech in some things, most of which are hidden (like, for example, its robotic industries) but very low-tech in many, many more which are everywhere –like, for example, fax machines.
According to all the data I could find, there are at this time fax machines in 59% of Japanese households and in all Japanese companies, especially in the small and medium ones who are still the backbone of Japanese economy but also in most of those that are supposedly at the cutting edge of technology. And there aren’t just there: they are used and the are used a lot, every year new models come out and every year over two millions of them are sold. In other words, the Japanese don’t seem at all willing to let go of their old habit because they are too old to develop new ones, because they like (or because they find easier) writing by hand, because they are concerned about their privacy if they move all their communication to the Internet, because they believe that it is more official (and indeed it is) for paper lasts and can be stamped with the small seals they use instead of signing or because of any other of the dozen of reasons the media, local and international have recorded.
The readers of these “Letters” must have already recognized one more variation of the familiar (and here it’s I who is getting ready to start slipping down the slope of stereotypes) motif of contradictions; and, of course, I don’t mean just the fax machines: I’m generalizing in the same way the essay that sparked this response, so to speak, did. I would say though that here the contradiction is milder because the Japanese’s low-tech side is much broader than their high-tech one. The fax machines are not an isolated phenomenon, it’s just one that impresses the most because in Western countries they have, literally, become museum exhibits but in everyday life in Japan, the occasions where the technology used would be considered obsolete anywhere else are, in the most conservative estimate, countless. In essence, this is not a high-tech country that keeps some –colorful- memories of the past: it is a low-tech country that in some points it rushed very fast forward. And this isn’t criticism but the simple description of a situation that, to this writer, doesn’t rob it in any way of its charm.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.