Now Reports

Low-tech high life

Tenjin is one of my favourite places – mainly for shopping. Shoes and jackets (my favourite route to end-of-month bankruptcy) are so painfully trendy here that they make my knees weak. The fashion options are all so current, so progressive, that you can feel pretty tame when browsing the shops in just jeans and a t-shirt. So, it’s nice to know that you can still be shocking somewhere as cutting-edge as Fukuoka’s fashion district – just try paying for your new threads with a debit card. Or, when you’re at the office (your digitised, Japanese robo-office, right?), try suggesting they use broadband instead of a dial-up connection on the office PC. Go to a bank and ask if you can use their ATM after 10pm; go to a post office and ask if they open on Sunday. Nothing. They’ll look at you like you’re a stranger from a brave new world. Yep, my biggest shock from five months of living in Fukuoka is just how technophobic Japan can be.

Since I moved to Kurume last August, my family back in Scotland have suffered many a Skype complaint about my 30-year-old aircon unit and the grim limitations of my bank card. They no longer see Japan as one big Tokyo, buzzing with cyber progress; in fact, my Dad has compared my life in Japan to Britain in the late 1970s, when unemployment led to widespread cutbacks and frugality. In terms of technology and office practice, the Japan of the 1970s too is probably pretty similar to Japan today. But why is this such a surprise for a newcomer? Why the contrast between the image of Japan and the reality of my frustrated phone calls back home?

In the West, we see Japan as embodying the information age, innovative on an almost surreal level, and the Japanese media seems fairly happy to nurture this idea abroad. Indeed, the gap between facade and truth can be a matter of national concern here – the disparity between ‘honne’ (true feelings) and ‘tatemae’ (public behaviour) has formed the basis of social practice in Japan for hundreds of years. At first, frustration towards low-tech life along with my gaijin outsider status convinced me that the Western image of Japan is really just a slickly choreographed sham, the reality a well-kept secret. After months of living in an apartment where my fuse blew any time I ran both my microwave and my laptop, I was sure that the Japanese don’t want the world to know how behind the times their technology is, as if it was a source of national embarrassment. It’s clear to me now though that the reverse is true: they like it this way.

But why in Japan, of all places, do dated technologies prevail? For one thing, we have the oft-quoted problem of an ageing population. More than twenty percent of Japanese are over 65; used to the current ways of doing business, they’re unlikely to request a switch to digital anytime soon. More than anything else, the head-in-the-sand approach to change in Japanese offices is, to me, perplexing at best, completely ignorant at worst. The more I watch my colleagues, however, the more it seems like delayed gratification instead of stubbornness. They suffer through the logistical inconveniences in order to come out the other side more forbearing and virtuous. The idea of ‘gaman’ (uncomplaining perseverance) has Buddhist origins: enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. If a lesson must be prepared and you have nothing but a dinosaur of a PC and a temperamental fax machine, then completing the task will be made even sweeter because of the challenges posed by the very objects intended to help you. And don’t even consider complaining about it either – in Japanese offices, it is truly the bad workman who blames his tools.

As we suffer through the bitter Japanese winter, the lack of central heating often causes us Westerners to hate this particular cultural idiosyncrasy. It can be hard for us to accept things being made more difficult for our benefit. The fact is, however, that complaining about it is like banging your head against a brick wall. Low-tech life indicates the larger issue of Japanese resistance to, and maybe even suspicion towards, change in general, a national trait so radically different from the international preconception. If I’d never come to Japan, I’d never have truly appreciated the more broad-minded approach to office life back home. I’d also never have learned to work a fax machine from 1999. Dodesho?

by Hannah Auld, Scotland, Assistant Language Teacher

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn170, Feb. 2013)

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Fukuoka City
Published: Jan 30, 2013 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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