Commentary: COVID-19 reveals how low-tech Japan actually is – and has chosen to be


Japan, despite its high-tech reputation, has very low-tech tastes, says Financial Times Leo Lewis.

Footmarks to indicate for customers to keep distance from each other in the queue toward to the checkout counters amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a Seven-Eleven convenience store in Tokyo, Japan April 13, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Leo Lewis

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TOKYO: As Japan has slowly contorted itself into a life of COVID-19 confinement, two books have been fighting for the top spot on

One is the Japanese translation of Albert Camus 1947 classic La Peste, in which the horrors of a cholera outbreak are used to dissect the human condition.



The other is a still unreleased, 1,072-page guidebook for the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The book (hard copy only) will go on sale in late April, about a month after the game itself – a build-your-own-island simulator – emerged to critical acclaim.

The resurgent popularity of the Camus novel makes grim sense. But so do the huge presales of the Animal Crossing guidebook: Japan, despite a high-tech reputation, can be very low-tech in its tastes.

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In most countries, gamers seeking to crack the secrets of a new release on Nintendos WiFi-enabled, state-of-the-art portable console, would head straight to the internet.

Japan – the country that pioneered the machine – mass-orders a book on which you could break a toe.

An isolated example?

No, not in a country where large parts of the public and private sectors still insist upon formal communications by fax, where a politician can become the governments deputy head of cyber security without ever having used a computer in his professional life and where the banking system is only now grudgingly prodding its customers towards internet transactions.

File photo of a cashless transaction via PayPay at a restaurant in Tokyo, Jul 25 2019. (Photo: AFP/Toshifumi Kitamura)


The strictures imposed by the coronavirus have brought some of these Japanese paradoxes into sharper relief. We currently spend ever longer hours watching the spread of the virus discussed on TV shows that offer a masterclass in the visual techniques of yesteryear.

Despite the availability of the worlds most sophisticated digital tools, Japanese broadcasters prefer to contextualise current affairs using whiteboards, cardboard models, sponge-tipped pointing sticks and other weapons from the primary-school arsenal.

All those choices are absolutely Japans prerogative. Where some of them now jar, though, is when they come up against the new reality of the virus and the now unarguable recommendation that people work from home.

Japan, for various reasons, took its time reaching this conclusion but, even in the twilight weeks before emergency was officially declared and telework became a necessity, it was clear that the countrys low-tech leanings were about to be harshly exposed.

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In early March, as part of a survey, Japanese IT research group ITR asked the countrys corporations if they had systems that would allow staff to work remotely. 28 per cent said that they did; 27 per cent said they were thinking about it; while the remaining 45 per cent either werent even considering it or didnt know.

These figures imply a stubbornness that requires commitment – both practical and ideological.

About the time the ITR report was published, Japan was commemorating the ninth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami – a disaster that demonstrated the vulnerability of companies, government and infrastructure and which evinced pledges that lessons would be learnt.

In that light, Japan – at a terrible price – was given a decades head start on preparing for mass disruption, and the sub-30 per cent telework readiness is disappointing.


Elements of the problem, though, are baked in at the legal level.

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