Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Japan’s Digital Agency Minister Taro Kono is trying to get companies in the country to use digital technology, and no longer use fax machines. File photo: AP

Japan’s Taro Kono wants to stamp out the fax machine, but will message be received?

  • Japan’s minister of administrative reform wants to wean the country off fax machines, and encourage the use of digital signatures instead
  • Faxes are often used to print off physical documents and apply traditional ink stamps ‘hanko’ that are used to sign everything in Japan
When Taro Kono was appointed Japan’s minister of administrative reform in September 2020, he immediately set himself a nine-month deadline to bring the nation’s bureaucrats, companies, public organisations and even the general public into the 21st century.

Kono’s requests, starting with government ministries, were by no means outrageous: he wanted to wean them off fax machines that have dominated every office in Japan since the 1970s, and to encourage the use of digital signatures in favour of the tradition of printing out documents and applying a “hanko” seal of approval.

In a nation that has produced Nintendo and Toyota, cutting-edge robotics, a thriving space industry, advanced energy solutions and countless other technological innovations, Kono’s mission seemed realistic. But Japan’s stubborn reliance on methods of doing business that are considered laughably archaic elsewhere is proving to be insurmountable.

Yet the go-getting Kono is nothing if not resilient. Japan set up its Digital Agency last year and he was put in charge, with the task of nurturing the country’s digital technology. And he is determined to impose his will on the holdouts against progress.

Can Japan end its love affair with ‘boomer-era’ tech?

During an online meeting with reporters last month, Kono underlined his ongoing commitment to the campaign to get the nation up to speed.

“I have no intention of playing coordinator,” local media quoted him as saying. “If people don’t listen, I am going to beat them up.”

He reportedly delivered the warning with a laugh, but it is unlikely that he will be smiling if his will is not met. Kono will be keeping tabs, as he has ordered that ministry departments report progress in switching from fax and hanko to electronic communications.

A study by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry last year found that just 13 per cent of Japanese firms were working to digitise their operations, far behind the 60 per cent in the United States. The ministry’s white paper determined that matching the digital transformation of the US could boost sales in the domestic manufacturing sector alone by 6 per cent per year, or some 23 trillion yen (US$154.2 billion).
A study in the same year by IMD, a Swiss academic organisation, placed Japan 28th out of 64 developed countries assessed for their digital competitiveness.

While many say they are slowly shifting away from old-school office equipment, plenty still see no need to change their ways. The most common reason they give is that no one else in Japan is going digital, so they will not be able to communicate with clients, colleagues or contacts.

“Many of the people that we need to be in contact with are not familiar with emails or other forms of electronic communications, so the fax machine is really important and useful for us,” said Hiromichi Moteki, the acting head of a Tokyo-based academic society. “And even when we do use emails, I always think it is a useful backup if something should go wrong with our email connection.”

Even a domestic corporate giant like Mori Building Co makes regular use of its fax machines, says public relations official Saori Asano.

“It is very important for the PR team to keep a relationship with Japanese media, so we send out press releases by email and by fax because we have learned that many media largely ignore releases sent by email, but they do see them when they come through as paper that they physically hold,” she said. “If we want our press releases to be seen, we have to send them by fax or they will not be read.”


In Japan, coronavirus is accelerating the end of ‘hanko’ ink seals

In Japan, coronavirus is accelerating the end of ‘hanko’ ink seals

In a country with more older people than younger ones, the fax machine “gives them a sense of security” in the face of changing digital modes of communication.

Asano added that there was also concern about emails being hacked or viruses being attached to emails, “which is not a problem with fax messages”.

“But I do think that things began to change during the coronavirus pandemic,” she suggested. “We used to send messages every day to the Ministry of Land by fax, but when they moved to having fewer staff in their office we changed to emails. They got used to that quite quickly and we always send our reports electronically now.”

I am 58 years old and I just feel more secure when I put my signature on a piece of paper rather than sending an email
Minoru Tagawa, Japanese Communist Party spokesman

Breaking bad habits may prove to be most difficult in Japan’s sprawling and change-resistant bureaucracy.

“Virtually all our administrative procedures have to be done the old-fashioned way, face-to-face, with paper and a ‘hanko’ stamp on every document,” said an official in a prefectural government. “It is widely considered that is the only way to serve all residents equally; the government puts fairness first, even when many things can be done with our fingertips thanks to the internet and smartphones.

“So why is there reluctance to change? I can’t think of a good answer,” said the official, who requested their name not be used.

Faxing is so ubiquitous, the service is provided at Japanese convenience stores. Photo: Shutterstock

Even the political world is not completely on-board with Kono’s campaign, with Minoru Tagawa, a spokesman for the Japanese Communist Party admitting that everyone “is just used to using faxes”.

“The majority of active people in our party are elderly and they don’t or will not use emails, social media or even mobile phones, but they still have a phone and fax machine at home, and that’s how they want to be contacted,” he said. Similarly, paperwork is usually signed with a pen rather than approved electronically, he said.

“I am 58 years old and I just feel more secure when I put my signature on a piece of paper rather than sending an email,” he said. “I just don’t trust messages when they are electronic.”