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Japan won its ‘war’ on floppy disks, but its love of archaic tech lingers

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Two years ago, Japan’s Digital Minister Taro Kono turned heads when he declared war on an almost obsolete piece of computer hardware: the floppy disk. In a post on social media, Kono said that the Japanese government still required the likes of floppies and CDs for some 1,900 procedures — and vowed to eliminate their use.

This week, Kono declared victory, telling Reuters: “We have won the war on floppy disks on June 28!” A document released by his office confirmed the triumph.

While it might seem surprising that this battle needed to be fought, Japan is not the only place that has floppy disks hanging around. Norway’s doctors were using floppy disks in 2015 and as of a year later, the United States’ nuclear program was too. British Airways’ Boeing 747-400s were still receiving crucial updates via floppy disk until as recently as 2020. In San Francisco, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, the city’s train system runs on floppies.

Still, Japan’s lingering reliance on archaic technology stands out. The country has long been known for innovation, so much so that the idea of Japan as a futuristic utopia replete with robots, singing toilets and zooming bullet trains has almost veered into a trope. But it’s also the country where flip phones remained popular long into the smartphone era and where employees protest getting rid of fax machines — and, as experts say, this relationship with tech reflects both pragmatic concerns and the deeply held values that allowed Japanese technology to thrive in the first place.

Kenji Kushida, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points to a number of practical reasons for the slow adoption of new technologies, including a lack of incentive to update the IT systems in which governments and businesses invested in the 1980s and 1990s. The Japanese government also had thousands of “analog regulations” that mandated seemingly outdated processes for various official procedures — such as transferring data via floppy disk, CD, or even by hand.

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“It really took political will” to rewrite such regulations, Kushida said.

But deeper than government rules or bureaucracy, he said, is a kind of digital discomfort related to the Japanese language. It can be difficult to fill out digital forms in Japanese, which uses three writing systems that don’t always translate well to digital interfaces, Kushida said. “It feels like it’s 1,000 times faster to just write the thing and then send a fax,” he said.

This effect is compounded in a society where older people, who are not digital natives, make up a large percentage of Japan’s population, Kushida said.

Ulrike Schaede, professor of Japanese business at the University of California at San Diego, also said the language is an obstacle to adopting new technologies, though she also attributes it to “anzen daiichi,” or “safety first” — which she says is akin to a national motto.

“Generally things have to be 100% proven before they can be rolled out,” Schaede wrote in an email. “Mistakes, data leaks, lost data, are all very costly. Americans shrug those costs off in the interest of progress, Japanese don’t.”

Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, attributes the government’s use of old tech to “underfunding of public administration,” pointing to budget and staffing deficits. More advanced technology such as USBs or cloud storage “may have been considered as too risky without better tech support,” he wrote in an email, adding that even if you misplaced a floppy, “if others found it, they won’t be able to open it.”

For Roland Kelts, a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and author of “Japanamerica,” the prevalence of outdated tech is linked to another Japanese concept known as monozukuri, which describes the value placed on crafting physical things such as kimonos or lacquerware.

“A floppy disk is not necessarily a beautifully crafted thing,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s still a physical product, and something that if you take care of it and keep it in good condition, it will perform a function for you.”

“It’s much more reliable than this abstract cloud that you can’t hold in your hand,” Kelts added.

In many ways, the country’s focus on physical design has proven a strength. Japanese companies have thrived by designing groundbreaking hardware, from the Sony Walkman to the Nintendo Switch. Hayao Miyazaki, the internationally acclaimed founder of the Studio Ghibli animation studio, works “meticulously by hand,” Kelts notes. And when we imagine “high tech Japan,” he said, what we are actually thinking of are often physical technologies, such as the bullet train.

That same focus on tangible things, which can feel so old-school in the digital age, also pushes Japan forward. As Kelts puts it: “Sometimes Japan’s retro is actually quite futuristic.”

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