When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, the latter described Jews and Japanese as “two ancient peoples, proud of our history and our heritage, and at the same time we are two modern, dynamic societies and we eagerly seek to blaze new paths to an advanced and innovative future for all of us and for all mankind.”
Perhaps it is through this juxtaposition of ancient and modern that Japan and Israel, two of the most advanced high-tech producers in the world, share an anachronistic idiosyncrasy: the fax machine.
In most places, the fax machine has been consigned to the relic status of mimeographs machines and floppy disks, but both Israel and Japan continue to use that cutting edge 1980s technology well into the 21st century.
Yet in the two countries, the reasons for continued use of a device The New York Times described a decade ago as “technology that refuses to die” are starkly different.
In Japan, cultural preferences give faxes a leg up.
Japan still values handwriting, to the extent that greeting cards and resumes are still typically hand-written and calligraphy lessons are popular.
The complexity of written Japanese, with thousands of characters and various symbol sets, hindered its adaptation into computers and keyboard typing. The aging population is also less quick to adopt new technologies, and Japan’s is one of the oldest in the world, with a median age of 46.1 (compared with 29.9 in Israel). There is also a cultural preference for having tangible, hard copies of documents.
A survey by the Internet Fax Research Institute found that 87.5 percent of Japanese businessmen said fax was a crucial business tool, the BBC reported in 2012, the same year The Washington Post noted that 59 percent of Japanese homes owned fax machines.
Israel’s refusal to let go of the fax machine, however, is the result of a more entrenched economic problem.
Far from being a beloved method of communication, fax machines in Israel have come to represent tireless bureaucracy and lack of customer service, to the extent that Labor MK Stav Shaffir felt the need to introduce a bill requiring government offices to offer electronic alternatives (it never passed).
“It’s not clear why you need legislation. These companies should have just progressed with the technology,” Shaffir told The Jerusalem Post
at the time.
The impetus for the legislation, she said, came from her assistant, who was worried about finding time to get a transaction done at the bank. Despite the existence of online banking services and email, the transaction she needed to carry out could only be done in person or via fax.
“I have no time, and I find myself often really stuck because I don’t have the time to go the bank, to do these little things, and if I could do everything electronically, it would change my life. It’s small but it adds up,” Shaffir said, lamenting that customer service is swept aside in Israel, and the public is forced to constantly search for fax machines to get basic tasks done.
“It is not right that in a day and age when one can shop online all over the world, we waste hours on a tedious bank errand,” she said Outside the world of banking, government is the biggest culprit. Even forms that can be downloaded in PDF format from the Internet often need to be printed out and faxed in.
“The fax is a disaster – you don’t know if it got there, it’s not a phone call, it’s not an email, it’s stuck in between,” said a Finance Ministry employee.
“It’s ridiculous that you can get the forms online but can’t fill them out and send them in.”
So why is Israel stuck in a fax rut, even as it manages to produce some of the most innovative technology in the world? “Perhaps it’s because we don’t have much of a culture of service, so companies don’t have to make an effort to get us as customers,” said Gili S. Drori, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Part of the reason for that culture, however, is lack of competition. The high-tech sector, which has above-average productivity, competes in a global market. Certain sectors of Israel’s economy, however, are shielded from competition or dominated by a few players who do not need to provide good customer service and innovative technology to stay afloat in a market of 8 million people.
“When there’s competition, sophistication results. When you’re being chased by a lion, your mind sharpens,” said Shally Tshuva, a managing partner at Trigger Foresight (Deloitte) who authored a study for Google about Information and Communications Technology adoption in Israel.
“At first people say ‘why do you think there’s a problem, we’re the Start-up Nation, we don’t have a problem of innovation and ICT.’ But when you dig deeper you see that there are two nations,” he added.
While Israel’s competitive industries have managed to create great technology, Israel as a country has had difficulty applying that technology as a tool, the study found.
“The extent to which the Israeli public sector harnesses ICT to deal with these challenges is not compatible with the country’s image as a global leader in technology and innovation.
It is hard to imagine a truly innovative country without a government that sets an example for the integration of innovation, both as a client of advanced tools and as a supplier of innovative services,” the study concluded.
The government’s instability and inability to plan strategically hinders its ability to build three elements the study said were crucial to adopting technology: infrastructure, tools and content. Often, the government focuses on one at a time, hence the requirement to fax in forms that were downloaded from the Internet. The government’s domination of the education and health systems creates hindrances in those fields as well, Tshuva said.
A similar critique has been lobbed at Japan, whose love affair with fax machines “may also represent a deeper sign of the nation’s inability to change and to accommodate global standards,” according to the Washington Post.
In the current election campaign, several political parties aired ads asking the public what leader it trusted to answer when the red phone rings at night.
With efforts to increase economic ties to Japan well under way, they can at least rest assured that there will always be someone on the other end when the big red fax machine rings.