Contrary to popular belief, Japan does not always embrace technology


Let’s say you are in a group of people and for some reason, the conversation touches the topic of Japan. Chances are high that at some point someone – usually a person who never has been to Japan – will refer to the popular stereotype of Japan being “a country of technology”. Japan is widely regarded as a place ahead of every other nation in regards to adoption of new technology.

Here is the thing: This is not true. Japan’s reputation as THE hotbed for technology might be the biggest misconception that exists about a country’s attitude towards technology.

I came to think of this when I had a look at some of the statistics from the report Digital, Social and Mobile in 2015, released by the Singapore-based agency We Are Social. For the report the company collected and compiled a massive amount of data from various sources, showing the state of Internet usage, mobile web penetration and popularity of social media around the world. While I browsed through the charts, I couldn’t help but notice how Japan lags behind other major countries in some key aspects. According to the data, Japanese users spent less time on the Internet (desktop and mobile) than anybody else surveyed and less time with social media. They are less interested in e-commerce than citizen of other advanced nations and – very much surprisingly – really do not seem to care too much about mobile commerce.

Now, my suspicion is that the data that these charts is based on does not give a completely correct picture of Japanese Internet habits. Since the Japanese market is still dominated by many local companies, some of these might simply have not been considered as sources.

While I would not bet on the complete accuracy of the charts, I would claim that the overall story being told here does not surprise anybody who ever has taken a public commuter train in Tokyo. Even in autumn last year when I made my most recent visit to Japan, the amount of feature phones visible was still staggering. I had just been to Hong Kong before, where large smartphones and “phablets” dominated the scene. Tokyo’s public transport offered quite a contrast: People’s eyes were glued to devices with much smaller sizes. Some iPhones, some Android devices, and many phones by local brands – often pretty outdated looking ones. Despite the early rise of the mobile Internet and mobile multi-media services, Japan has lost its early adopter role, at least in regards to mobile technology for the global mass market.

I have an explanation for the apparent discrepancy between image and reality: Japan indeed is still a leader in technology – as long as we are talking about traditional industrial and machine technology. The country’s use of machines and robots in public situations is quite advanced, and most likely what many people have in mind when they refer to Japanese technology. But in regards to digital innovation, Japan right now has little to offer. The major innovation in this sector comes from other places.

To understand what is going on, I think one has to consider the huge role that perfection plays in Japanese culture. All kinds of technologies that need to be precise, that require a high level of quality and safety and that take a lot of time and care to be developed, such as cars, machines or actual robots, are a great fit. But in regards to consumer tech, both hardware and software, speed has become a crucial factor for success. Development cycles are short, consumer needs and market trends change constantly and every innovation is being copied by everybody else. Especially when it comes to software, the winning solutions are those that are being created in an iterative, flexible process based on user feedback. In such an environment, striving for perfection before launch, having to go through a slow, multi-level approval process, means always lagging behind.

It’s just a theory, but I am quite confident that this cultural characteristic is one contributing factor to the ambivalent state of technology in Japan. If you want to understand Japanese perfection, watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. To some extent, the mindset and overall situation is quite similar in Germany.

In addition, Japanese users themselves do seem to be more conservative than people elsewhere. Consumers not only are less active on the Internet and social media and care less about the latest premium smartphone from a global brand, but also still fancy the CD. And Tokyo’s gigantic physical book stores might be some of the most crowded ones in the world.

Summing up, it is time to differentiate more whenever a conversation touches the topic of Japan’s relation with technology.

Japan’s government is fortunately aware of the country’s strengths. It has just approved a strategy aiming at “realizing a robot revolution”. The government and private firms will invest a total of ¥100 billion (about €750 million/$850 million) to develop robots and other related projects over five years from 2015 to 2019. Robots, a global market that is about to explode thanks to a new wave of automation, is the perfect field for Japan to excel and dominate in.

But no matter how impressive those robots might be: They say very little about the Japanese consumer’s overall attitude towards digital technology. In that regard, neighboring South Korea is the more interesting place to watch.