When the Olympics started on the 23rd of July 2021, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation ('Nippon Hoso Kyokai' or 'HHK') made a surprising announcement: if Japanese fans wanted to contact their Olympic team, they could use their fax number.
While people often refer to fax machines as 'relics' in other countries, it's never fallen out of popularity in Japan. In 2021, one-third of Japanese households still own a fax machine, and fax machine sales grew by 6% last year.
However, the days of fax machines in Japan may come to an end soon. Last year, Japan's Administrative Reforms Minister Taro Kono identified fax machines as an outdated technology that Japan needs to eliminate.
So what's going on with Japan's great faxing debate, and what can Australian businesses learn from it? That's what this article focuses on.
History of the Fax Machine in Japan
To understand Japan's love for the fax machine, you need to understand the machine's history. Today's fax machines are based on a concept developed by Alexander Bain in 1843. Bain's concept was pretty simple: you could transmit handwritten messages line-by-line if you connected two machines synchronised with clocks.
Bain's concept would become a reality by 1846 when he built the first fax machine. However, his invention needed some improvements to work.
These improvements were made by Frederick Bakewell, who added rotating cylinders to the fax machine. This allowed him to transmit both images and text-based messages through the device.
Although Bakewell made great strides with faxing technology, it was Giovanni Caselli who brought it to market. Caselli created a version of a fax machine called a 'Pantelegraph' using funds from the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II.
When Did the Fax Machine Reach Japan?
Between 1860 and the 1960s, inventors like Arthur Korn, Herbert E. Ives, Edouard Belin and Shelford Bidwell would all improve the fax machine. However, fax machines would first enter widespread use in Japan after the Xerox Corporation released the Xerox Magna Telecopier in 1966.
The Xerox Magna Telecopier was a special type of fax machine that connected to phone lines. After Xerox released it, Japan almost immediately embraced it, as Japan's government and national telephone carrier NTT heavily promoted it in the early 1970s.
Japanese people would start using other fax devices after 1976 when NTT began approving other fax machines. During this period, Japan's government agencies also switched to fax machines, as Japan's police force, self-defence forces, weather service, and the Japanese National Railroad embraced the technology.
Faxing gained popularity in Japan partly because the government heavily encouraged it. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, they used faxes when communicating with businesses, accepted patent applications through fax, and reduced the recommended lifespan of each machine to five years (increasing sales).
In 1980, the Japanese government also helped businesses and other governments create the ITU G3 Facsimile Standards, which ensure fax machines follow set standards that allow them to talk to each other.
As fax machines gained popularity across Japan, private companies took notice and began investing in better machines. This made Japan the 'hub' of fax machine technology, as major Japanese companies drove the global market.
Did Abraham Lincoln Get a Fax from a Samurai?
When people learn about Japan's history with faxing, they often encounter the legend that a Japanese Samurai may have sent faxes to American President Abraham Lincoln.
While this might seem ridiculous, it isn't.
It wasn't until 1865 that Lincoln was killed at the Ford Theater, and Japan didn't abolish Samurai's until 1868. As Bain invented the fax machine in 1843, there is a 22-year window where fax machines and Samurai's existed, and Lincoln was still alive.
However, as the fax machine was not widely used in the 1800s, it's unlikely that any Samurai ever faxed Lincoln - as they would have needed fax lines from Japan to America to send the fax.
Now that you understand Japan's faxing history, let's move on to the present day.
Faxing in Japan in 2021
So, just how common is faxing in Japan?
Research conducted by Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications shows that fax machines are owned by:
2.1% of people in their 20s
9.4% of people in their 30s
25.8% of people in their 40s
Over 40% of people aged 50 - 79
38.9% of people in their 80s or older
And while faxing isn't as popular with younger generations, retailers still sell thousands of fax machines in Japan every year (although sales are slowly declining). You can see sales from 2013 to 2018 in the graph below.
Japan's Great Faxing Debate
While people worldwide have questioned the efficiency of faxing for many years, Japan's great faxing debate truly kicked off this year.
In April, Japan's Administrative Reforms Minister Taro Kono announced that he would eliminate faxing from the Japanese government (along with personal seals or 'Hanko'). Immediately, other government officials and workers pushed back at Kono with backlash over his proposal. In fact, according to the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, Japan's government agencies and ministry sent Kono roughly 400 counterarguments fighting to keep faxing alive.
So what are their arguments?
The Arguments 'For' Fax Machines
While we don't know exactly what each agency or ministry wrote, there are some general themes to their arguments:
It's Crucial For Many Departments
First, many people argue that faxing is crucial to their daily work. For example, Japan's court system is heavily dependent on faxing to transmit documents between police, court officials and administrative officials. If these people switched to faxing, a security lapse could arise, as the current security system protecting highly confidential court documents was designed around faxing.
They Need to Process Hand-Signed Documents
Second, many agencies need a form of document sharing that allows them to process handwritten or hand-signed documents quickly. If Japan's government switched to a digital form of communication like email, these agencies would need to print, sign and scan each document individually. As many agencies process hundreds of documents daily, this would increase their workload dramatically.
Faxing is Still Popular With Businesses
Finally, although many global businesses have embraced alternative document sharing tools like online faxing, many small and medium businesses have not. These enterprises aren't a small group, either, as they account for 99.7% of all businesses in Japan.
Naturally, as many government agencies work closely with businesses, they need to use communication tools that are compatible with the majority of companies.
The Arguments 'Against' Fax Machines
Kono's dedication to eliminating the fax machine isn't the result of some deep-seated hatred for faxing technology. Instead, he is working to eliminate processes that are a "hindrance" to productivity in government departments.
He focused on faxing and Hanko specifically because of concerns that they contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in Japan. For example, a recent survey of 500 Japanese businesspeople found that 60% of employees have had to come into the office during COVID-19 to get faxes, check for printouts, or sign/stamp a document. As Japan is still fighting hard to limit COVID-19 cases, these people could become infected when travelling to work in busy cities.
Kono also believes that faxing prevents people from working efficiently from home, as they cannot access all the documents they need to do their jobs. As at least 19% of the Japanese working population are working remotely during COVID-19, limiting the job functions they can perform could be detrimental to the work of businesses and government agencies.
Finally, proponents for abolishing fax machines from the government argue that the machines are expensive and bad for the environment. As you need a machine, toner and paper to fax, the cost of running the average fax machine is $1,259.76 annually. Ink cartridges are also awful for the environment, as it takes 2.5 ounces to a gallon of oil to manufacture each cartridge (depending on the type). Ink cartridges also take 450 - 1,000 years to decompose.
So what should Japan do?
Online Faxing: A Solution To Japan's Fax Problem?
While proponents for abolishing fax machines argue they are slow and expensive, fans of fax machines argue they are crucial for Japan's government. However, there is a solution that would work for both parties: online faxing.
Online faxing (sometimes called 'internet faxing') is an alternative form of document sharing that allows people to transmit faxes via the internet. When you send a fax with online faxing, it goes from your faxing provider to your recipient through private internet servers (instead of through analog phone lines). This makes online faxing fully compatible with remote work, as you can fax from any computer, smartphone or tablet.
But that's not its only benefit.
If they choose to switch to online faxing, Japan's government could eliminate fax machines and save faxing, as people could fax from home. They could also:
Save money = as online faxing services start from $169.50 annually, and it costs $1,259.76 annually to run the average fax machine (accounting for machine, printer, ink, paper and maintenance costs).
Save space = as you don't need a clunky office fax machine to send faxes online.
Fax from anywhere = as online fax services like eFax allow you to fax from a desktop app, mobile app, through your web browser or via email.
Sign faxes without printing them = as online fax services like eFax have inbuilt digital signature tools.
Fax faster = as 90% of online faxes are processed and transmitted in 60 seconds or less.
Reduce their environmental impact = as they wouldn't need to use ink cartridges, paper or machines to fax online.
Send international faxes cheaply = as it costs an average of $0.10 - $1.20 per page to send a fax internationally.
Improve their cybersecurity = as online faxes are encrypted and protected with Transport Layer Security (TLS).
Fax a broader range of files = as online faxing can transmit video and audio files, including .MOV and .MP3 files.
eFax: Japan's Faxing Friend
Australian businesses can learn a lot from Japan's love for faxing.
While you may be tempted to write off faxing as a relic of the past, it's crucial to many businesses. If you share hand-signed, handwritten, or confidential documents regularly, online faxing can help you process and store these documents safely. It's also cheaper and quicker than a traditional fax machine, making it an excellent investment long-term.
And if you're looking to embrace online faxing in your business, you should partner with eFax.
eFax is a leading online fax provider that supports over 11 million customers and transmits over one billion faxes monthly.
eFax's online faxing system is also top-of-the-range, as it includes game-changing features like an inbuilt PDF converter, large file sharing up to 3 GB, free cloud-based storage, digital signature technology, fax templates and an address book.
eFax is also NBN-compatible and future-proof, as it doesn't rely on faxes to transmit your documents. As eFax is even an accredited Business NBN provider, eFax's faxing experts can help you transition to the NBN network.
You can try eFax for yourself with a free trial. That trial includes up to 400 free faxes, a free fax number from one of 3,500 cities worldwide and full access to eFax. To start your free trial, click here
or call 1800 283 361.