Assume the fax machine is lifeless? Not in Japan

With Japan using the crest of its postwar financial miracle, Sony chairman Akio Morita and Japan’s Minister of Transport Shintarō Ishihara unleashed a manifesto.

The doc, revealed in 1989, contained a prophecy that propelled it to home bestseller standing, and into the involved arms of officers on the CIA.

On the time, the authors famous, the American and Soviet superpowers had change into “depending on the initiative of the Japanese individuals” in growing new expertise, as exemplified by the nation’s dominant manufacturing of semiconductor chips. For Morita and Ishihara, this signalled “the tip of modernity developed by Caucasians” and the emergence of “an period of recent genesis” led by Japanese technological supremacy.

Quick ahead to 2021, and Japan’s high-tech picture is peeling away. “Japan wants a software program replace”, the New York Occasions tells us. The nation’s octogenarian IT minister, Naokazu Takemoto, has been mocked for his incapability to take care of a functioning web site. Japan, it appears, is lagging behind within the world race to digitise, regardless of being the house of Panasonic and Mitsubishi, of bullet trains and neon-lit city life.

And nowhere is that this higher symbolised than within the nation’s ongoing love affair with the fax machine. The Twentieth-century expertise remains to be a fixture in lots of Japanese workplaces, the place there stays an insistence on paper paperwork bearing private seals. However quite than asking why Japanese companies have patiently stood by their buzzing fax machines, maybe we must always actually be asking: why do we discover it so stunning? Why do representations equating Japan to excessive applied sciences persist so tenaciously, regardless of proof on the contrary?

An apparent perpetrator is “techno-orientalism”. One utility of the time period orientalism has been in describing the romanticisation of the east, within the eyes of the west, as a spot of exoticism and mystical knowledge. Japan’s booming microelectronics trade opened a brand new risk for orientalist fantasy: techno-orientalism, or the concept the east might symbolize an unique, technoscientific future. Assume right here of how neon-lit Tokyo helped encourage Blade Runner’s aesthetic and Neuromancer’s television-coloured skies.

However look additional again, and there’s a deeper historical past, entangled with trendy imperialism, that feeds into our thought of up to date Japan. The fantasy of superior technological growth has lengthy been elementary to defining Japanese nationwide id – as “trendy”, relative to each its Asian neighbours and the west.

Japanese id

It was no accident that when Akio and Shintarō spoke in 1989 of Japan’s rise, they framed it as “the tip of modernity developed by Caucasians”. Japan entered the fashionable worldwide order staring down the barrels of cannons mounted on American steamships. In negotiating the nation’s opening, western imperial powers impressed upon Japan their overwhelming mechanical may, bolstered by an “ideology of dominance primarily based on expertise”.

In response, technological growth grew to become the cornerstone of Japan’s nationwide agenda. As encapsulated in slogans comparable to “oitsuke oikose” – “catch up and overtake” – the purpose was to create native industries, infrastructure and navy capability that will ultimately provide Japan parity with, and even superiority over, the west.

This “techno-nationalism” additionally served as a elementary motive for Japan’s imperial enlargement. By the late Nineteen Thirties, Japanese engineers referred to their work within the puppet state of Manchuria (an space protecting Northeastern China and components of neighbouring Russia) as “gijutsu hōkoku”, or “service to the nation by means of expertise”.

One among Japan’s earliest and most vital investments in faxing occurred in 1936, on the event of that yr’s Berlin Olympics. A telephotographic community was established between Tokyo and Berlin to transmit not solely photos of the occasion, but additionally an illustrated picture letter from Hitler to Nippon Electrical.

Shortly after, in 1941, the Japanese Planning Company outlined a imaginative and prescient of how Japanese engineering mixed with uncooked supplies from its Asian empire may create an autonomous zone free from domination by Western applied sciences. Foreshadowing the phrases of Morita and Ishihara half a century later, this imaginative and prescient of a “new order” intersected with broader wartime debates about how Japan may “overcome modernity” – a time period largely understood to be synonymous with overcoming the West.

Actuality bites

This nationwide fantasy, a projection of what Japan might or ought to change into on the degree of state and trade, persevered by means of Japan’s Nineteen Eighties technological ascendancy – simply because the fax machine was having fun with its heyday. However the exuberant postwar bubble would burst.

Throughout the “misplaced decade” of the Nineties, Japan’s economic system entered a recession, then shrank. An ageing inhabitants and marked gender and revenue inequality grew to become the matter of day by day headlines. From this attitude, sluggish digitalisation is merely one index of a common malaise gripping the nation for the reason that finish of its financial miracle. However, even because the hole between fantasy and actuality widened, Japan’s high-tech picture remained an integral a part of the favored creativeness.

The persistence of this picture within the face of contradictory proof is much less stunning given how technological prowess has been a elementary half Japanese nationwide id for over a century. If renewed consideration on Japan’s love affair with the fax machine tells us something, it’s maybe much less that Japan is mired within the pre-digital previous, however quite that the age when Japan outlined its relation to modernity by means of superior expertise could also be coming to an finish.

This text by Hansun Hsiung, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Trendy Languages and Cultures, Durham College, is republished from The Dialog below a Artistic Commons license. Learn the unique article.

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