back to article Japan still in love with the fax

Despite being hailed for its techno-innovation, Japan is a little more traditional than many people think – over half of homes apparently still contain fax machines. The country’s businesses and government organisations continue to rely on the legacy technology to transmit important documents, while 59 per cent of households …


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  1. Wombling_Free

    Fax.... machines?

    Are they like Phone-machines? and TV-machines? and Word processor machines?

    How kawai!

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Fax.... machines?

      The name is an historical artifact, Wombling_Free. When they were first widely available, they were pretty much the only electrical bit of common office equipment. It's a contraction of "facsimile machine".

      1. Christoph

        Re: Fax.... machines?

        "When they were first widely available, they were pretty much the only electrical bit of common office equipment."

        Except the telex machines that they replaced.

        Plus electric typewriters and dictaphones.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Fax.... machines?

      And as a side-note, back in the day I recall people calling IBM Displaywriters "word processing machines", and mainframe computers "computing" or "calculating" machines. Also, Xerox products were called "copying machines", and etc.

      Of course, they are all named "Fred" ... "Fucking Ridiculous Electronic Device" ;-)

    3. Steve the Cynic

      Re: Fax.... machines?

      What's wrong with "fax machine" as a name for it? I've only ever known them by that name, in fact.

      Or should I be asking you to get back under your bridge?

      (Fuss point 1: If you are going to poke fun, learn to spell "kawaii" correctly... It has a double-i at the end.)

      (Fuss point 2: This goes back to the article itself. Yes, Japanese has three scripts, but... Kanji are (normally slightly modified) Chinese characters. Hiragana and katakana are heavily modified Chinese characters. Native Japanese words and Chinese-origin loanwords are normally written in kanji. Japanese grammatical particles and other very small Japanese words (e.g. "san" = Mr, Miss, Mrs, or Ms.) are written in hiragana. Loanwords from other languages, mostly English, are written using katakana.)

    4. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: Fax.... machines?

      They are like a photocopier where the scanner and printer are at opposite ends of a telephone line.

      1. Wize

        Re: Fax.... machines?

        Since the information being transmitted is called a fax, not the machine, how else should it be named to differentiate between the two?

        1. Jerome 0

          Re: Fax.... machines?

          @Wize - call it a faxer?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: call it a faxer?

            That's the person sending the facsimile document.

  2. jake Silver badge

    Here in the USofA, I can't convince Doctors (Vets included) and Lawyers over the age of 40ish ...

    ... that Faxing is a terrible waste of resources.

    Funny thing is that most of 'em think they have been sold on the "paperless office" concept ... and are still keeping paper files on their clients!

    Nowt daft as folks ... Especially folks who think they have a "superior" education, which seems to include damn near every holder of a single doctorate ;-)

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      > are still keeping paper files on their clients!

      Often they have a requirement to keep files for decades - what electronic format would you recommend I store a 99 year lease in? Word .doc or .docx?

      There are also a whole bunch of regulations on privacy and handling for some industries - it's a lot easier for me to prove in court that nobody broke into a locked filing cabinet in a locked office than it is to prove a computer wasn't compromised

      1. jake Silver badge


        Personally, I store all my important documentation in 7-bit ASCII[2] ... Formatting, fonts & colo(u)r aren't strictly necessary for any such files. By way of reference, I still have every file I have created since 1975 at my fingertips. Sometimes I print contracts out on a daisy-wheel printer, when I know that an old-timer will be reading it :-)

        Yes, I know about the rules & regs on paper docs in such offices. The so-called "paperless" stuff is in addition to the paper trail ... and quite useless, in the great scheme of things (billing, digital X-ray & inventory excluded).

        Your "locked office and file cabinet" isn't as secure as you think it is. Lock picking isn't exactly rocket science[2]. Chances are that I can pick your locks and leave no traces ... on the other hand, most folks breaking into computers aren't skilled enough to leave no trace.

        [1] Yes, I know, not all countries use alphabets compatible with "normal" 7-bit ASCII ... so IBM invented so-called "code pages" for EBCDIC, before ASCII existed, which ASCII later emulated. Both have issues when it comes to CJK/V written languages. But that's been worked around, too. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader to figure out to avoid "tl;dr" comments.

        [2] It's a handy skill to learn, and contrary to popular opinion NOT illegal, unless you use it in an illegal manor.

        1. Anonymous Dutch Coward

          Re: @YAAc

          Do tell where these illegal manors are located so I can avoid them...

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: @YAAc

          It's not necessarily a question of is it really secure - it's how much does it cost me to argue in court.

          Being the test case of SHA-1 message digests and explaining PKI to a 100year old judge and 12 citizens of ToadSuck Ak. is likely to be harder than showing them a scrawled signature at the bottom of a fax.

      2. fridelain


        PDF, obiously.

    2. kain preacher

      Re: Here in the USofA,

      My dentist take digital x rays easier to store an look at , insurance requires him to take the old fashion x ray films to get paid.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: Here in the USofA,

        So do you really get x-rayed twice? Seriously?

        1. kain preacher

          Re: Here in the USofA,

          Yes he zapped me twice. Got to love American medicine.

    3. Ilgaz

      Old guys

      Perhaps they don't see the point of modern way. The point is, sending couple of pages to another location right?

      On fax: put them to feeder, enter number, press start button. You will also know they are there, physically or digitally.

      On "internet": boot win, find the awkward scanning application generally outsourced to some Indian company or coded by Chinese, find "document" setting (they are always set to photo), downgrade resolution (or you will get 1200 fake dpi), select tiff or pdf as file type (not jpeg!), scan, find file. Should I continue to "mail" part and tell the funny part where recipient's mailbox is full because of funny cat photos so it bounces?

      Really, which way is practical?

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Here in the USofA...

      Really? You tend to be the one who goes on about how many boats you've got, how many cars, all the computers you own and you complain about fax being a waste of resources?

      1. jake Silver badge

        @AC13:13 (was: Re: Here in the USofA... )

        I have my toys because I know how to use my resources (and I'm stingy).

        Faxing is a waste of resources.

  3. Charles E

    Why the fax is still popular in Japan

    There are several reasons why the Fax is still popular in Japan. The CCITT Group 3 image standard used in Fax machines was designed to be just enough resolution to read handwritten kanji characters as used in Japanese. Before the advent of word processing, Japanese companies had terrible difficulty producing typewritten documents, so businesses usually circulated handwritten documents via fax. There's a really interesting article on El Reg somewhere, written by a really clever guy, about Japanese typewriters and word processing. It explains all this stuff, you ought to read it.

    But the main reason why Faxes are still popular in Japan is not obvious: the cryptic Japanese street address system. Most businesses and homes have fax machines so they can send hand drawn custom maps to people who need to visit or make deliveries. Japanese street addresses are numbered by the age of the building. Street names are often unmarked and are often laid out in strange patterns. I recall buying my first Japanese Zaurus PDA in 1994 and being astonished that it had detailed maps of major Japanese cities stored in ROM, you could draw on them and fax them to people. This is why GPS systems were first popular with Japanese consumers. As GPS smartphones take over, and everyone can use their phones to access the internet for maps, the fax will gradually decline. But for most people, a fax machine is still easier.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why the fax is still popular in Japan

      Also, in Japan, you sign legal paper documents with an inkan (an inked stamp bearing the characters of your name). Think of it as a kind of hardware authentication token... So there's a lot of faxing, 'signing' and faxing back. (The Wikipedia entry on inkan is quite thought-provoking, if you are interested in the subject of identify)

      There are also digital equivalents to inkan & hanko - read the Adobe Acrobat documentation for an example

      I wonder if the relative 'non-computerisation' of Japan is related to the unsuitability of the keyboard for entering kanji, and if the ease of writing kanji on tablets will create a tipping point.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Why the fax is still popular in Japan


        In the UK, I have (as a relative youngster) only used a fax machine for sending my time sheets back to my employment agency. I have been told my signature on a fax carries more legal weight than on an email- I don't know if this is true, but at least a sender can be reasonably sure that the fax has gone to a specific geographical location.

        Now, does any one here remember Arthur C Clarke describing his plan for hacking his fax machine so as to bankrupt people who sent him spam faxes? (it was included in 'Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds')

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Why the fax is still popular in Japan

          >sure that the fax has gone to a specific geographical location.

          Actually you can't - unlike a telex.

          That's why you can't fax a patent application to your lawyer - you can't prove that the fax didn't get a wrong number and so a fax counts as published. An encrypted email is allowed - one of the few area where patents caught up.

      2. Quxy
        Thumb Up

        Re: Why the fax is still popular in Japan

        In contrast to the muddled information in the article, Charles E and FatsBrannigan have hit the nail on the head in identifying the two primary reasons for the persistence of the fax machine in modern-day Japan -- faxing hand-drawn maps and signing documents. I use smartphone apps for those functions now, but still send plenty of "electronic faxes" from my phone.

        The notion that entering Japanese on a computer is time-consuming or difficult and that people thus prefer to write by hand is quaint, but complete rubbish. Japanese is not my first language, but I can type a complete Japanese sentence on my smartphone or PC _faster_ than I can enter the equivalent sentence in English, as can any Japanese under the age of 50. In fact, old folks are fond of complaining that "young" people (i.e. anyone under 30) can no longer write by hand, as the smartphone and PC have nearly obsoleted those skills.

  4. John Doe 6

    In the rest of the world...

    ...Fax is still most popular way of sending legally binding documents, just try to ask a bank how they communicate with businesses not on the SWIFT... the answer is: by fax.

  5. Doug Bostrom

    When dealing w/printed forms filled out manually, wretched software for scanners means it's actually much faster to drop the form in the feeder of a fax machine and punch in a phone number, as opposed to discovering whether or not the scanner driver has mysteriously gone tits up, necessitating a reboot.

    HP's been selling "all-in-one" fax/print/scan machines for ~20 years now and over that period they've accomplished a remarkable feat: the software for these devices has grown steadily worse for the entire time. If they'd just freeze their product cycle for a few days or even just minutes and actually try eating their own rubbish they might get a clue as to why they're in a death spiral.

    1. Robert E A Harvey

      Oh glod, yes

      HP's massive drivers that won't cope with the advertised resolution, and are NEVER updated or patched.

      What a pile of stinking merde.

      1. fridelain

        Re: Oh glod, yes

        Incrediby, the CUPS (free software) ones included with GNU/linux distributions and Apple computers are quite good (As in they work and get out of the way).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Oh glod, CUPS

          There's a reason it's really called the "common unix pain system". But it's still better than HP's drivers. Or that brilliant idea to require every computer on the network to have the right drivers for every printer on the network that it might want to talk to. PostScript[tm] was invented for that, and while not perfect it is quite a good way to reduce work maintaining larger shops. Reason why I make sure my printers talk ps and then all I need is a simple spooler; lpd will do nicely.

          1. Robert E A Harvey

            Re: Oh glod, CUPS

            >But it's still better than HP's drivers.

            So is letting the dog eat Pate out of your lughole.

  6. Tom 7

    Meanwhile in the western world

    they still encrypt their data in 19th century technology in 'documents' and lots of other non-computer shaped technology.

    Luckily they took the combustion engine and put it in cars and planes rather than trying to stick it in a horse shaped machine and using it to drag carts of documents containing tons of repeated redundant and mall formed data.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "mall formed data"

      That's information that was created at a shopping precinct?

  7. Dan 55 Silver badge

    The alternative being... PDF?

    Which version of PDF would that be? The latest one thought up by Adobe as an inducement to installing their latest most-bloated version of Reader?

    I'm a customer of two companies which send me bills as digitally-signed PDFs in an effort to make them more legally binding. In both cases Reader says it can't verify the signature. Now go and ask someone who isn't an IT freak how to roll their own digitally-signed PDF.

    PDF is also an excellent attack vector since you can embed practically anything in them.

    There's a lot to be said for a scanner and a modem.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The alternative being... PDF?

      I imagine you know this already, but most likely the reason why it can't verify the signatures is because you haven't installed, or trusted, the Certification Authorities (CA) used to sign the signature that signed the document (if using X.509).

      However, I fully agree that digital signatures are really not quite there yet, precisely because of the problems on the usability front. (which is unfortunate, since I like the concept).

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: The alternative being... PDF?

        I suppose I should have expanded on my point, being that I don't think faffing about with the settings in Reader and installing the CA yourself is very secure either. There's nothing to stop the user going to $BADHOST and clicking yes to make the problem go away just because the e-mail/PDF says so.

    2. jake Silver badge

      @Dan55 (was: The alternative being... PDF?)

      "I'm a customer of two companies which send me bills as digitally-signed PDFs"

      The correct answer is "PDF? What PDF? I never received a PDF ... Snail-mail me the bill, please." PDFs are evil, and should be outlawed. My kit drops PDFs at the routers ... When it comes to .gov, I always call & have 'em send me the paper instead ... Why should I have to allow 36Megs of bandwidth when 1Meg of HTML will do ... or 36K of ASCII ... or a 48 cent stamp & less than a cent of paper?

      The mind absolutely boggles.

  8. JimC

    @these massive contradictions co-existing quite happily.

    And you think we don't?

    What you're used to always seems normal, but I bet there are any amount of such contradictions in our society that seem equally evident to someone from a totally different culture, but I'm no better fitted to spot 'em than the rest of you.

    1. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: @these massive contradictions co-existing quite happily.

      Like people in the office printing out every piece of nonsense, regardless of whether it necessary or useful to do so?

  9. The BigYin

    Important documents...?

    By fax....? Really? o_0

    Install GPG, pinentry and Enigmail (or similar).

    Generate a public/private key (if you don't already have one)

    Get your recipient's public key (and signing is just another excuse for a party)

    Encrypt and send in peace and (relative) security.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Important documents...?

      Like the old, old joke goes: "I would [do all that], but I don't know anyone else who has [done]"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Important documents...?

      Which works fantastically well until the day you have to communicate with a non-geek.

      (I'm a big fan of digital signatures btw, but I can see their shortcomings when it comes to usability)

      1. The BigYin

        Re: Important documents...?

        @AC - oh, don't start me on how poorly GPG et al hang together at times. But when they work, they work great. Which, of course, is why one would hire a consultant to sort it all out.

        But my main point remains, if these are truly important documents then encryption and digital signatures are better than a fax.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Important documents...?

        "Which works fantastically well until the day you have to communicate with a non-geek."

        Especially a non-geek who just upgraded their computer, and can't figure out why they can't read any of the e-mails they're getting on their new computer!

    3. Swarthy

      Re: Important documents...?

      The other problem is being sure that everyone knows that it's a key signing party. Otherwise, some people get upset when they can't find the fishbowl.

  10. Simon Walker

    Fax prevents fraud!

    Most will have encountered a bureaucratic department (government or otherwise) requiring us to fax them some critical information because it is "more secure" and because anything on a computer could have been easily edited in photoshop!

    Oh how I have enjoyed printing things out and then faxing them to the other end, in order that someone else can then scan them back in to a computer again...

    1. Ilgaz

      Re: Fax prevents fraud!

      Actually, they trust to Telecom's industry record keeping, not 300 (or 200) dpi tiff file which is sent.

    2. Allan George Dyer
      IT Angle

      Re: Fax prevents fraud!

      I usually paste the image file of my signature into the document, before sending direct to the fax server... preserves the "security" level, while saving paper.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fax prevents fraud!

      A few years ago I needed to get MSDN keys from Microsoft, they would only FAX them, not email.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh how I have enjoyed

      You do realise you can fax files straight from your PC?

      1. Simon Walker

        Re: Oh how I have enjoyed

        Sure do. But that's no good if they're expecting you to fill in a form by hand with block caps or a signature and date etc...

  11. Locky

    Not just in Japan

    We still recieve over 2000 customer statements a day by fax. Lots of small companies don't have scan to email facilities, but a £30 fax printer will do just fine

  12. Martin H Watson

    and bring back TELEX next


    1. Ilgaz

      Re: and bring back TELEX next

      Noticed they are still in use in large marine industry. Those old fashion billionaires still insist on tested, reliable tech. Eww.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: and bring back TELEX next

        * old fashionED

  13. Anonymous Cowherder

    I hate fax machines

    Always have done, always will do. They never used to work for me and usually resulted in many, many phone calls along the lines of:

    "I' faxed that 2 hours ago, did you get it?"

    "No, nothing"

    "Ok, I'll send it again"

    "No still not got it, oh hang on, its out of paper, I'll put some in (Cue sound of fax machine splurting back in to life) yeah, something's coming through now, oh, it is 7 copies of that document some one in legal needed yesterday but didn't get. Right, yours is coming through now, ha, it is the one you sent 2 hours ago, oh no, its out of paper again now, hang on, I'll have to nip and get some more....."


    "Can you resend it again, the one I've got printed out is very faint, yes, printing all those other faxes used up all the toner"

    "No, still not got it, hang on, its out of paper..."

    The guys who made Office Space got it right about fax machines, I fantasise about destroying them in the same way they do.

    1. Crisp


      It was a printer wasn't it?

      1. auburnman


        and it was "PC Load letter? what the f*** does that mean?" Load A4 would have been too helpful an error message.

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Yes

          I much prefer "lp0 on fire" and "not a typewriter".

        2. jonathanb Silver badge

          Re: Yes

          It means "You have not changed the default paper size in Word from US Letter to A4. Please cancel the print job, change the settings in Word and send the document to the printer again with the correct paper size."

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How else are they going to get in touch with Morrissey?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Preferred method:

    1. Fill in timesheet

    2. Get manager to sign timesheet.

    3. Fax timesheet

    4. Get paid within a month.

    More and more common method:

    1. Get sent login to flaky third-party 'self billing' website.

    2. Spend much frustrating and wasted time working out how to enter time into awkward flaky user interface which looks like it was created by a student.

    3. Wait for email to be sent to line manager for approval.

    4. Chase up email that never got sent, or arrived, or was never replied to.

    5. Eventually get paid 2 months behind invoice date.

  16. Alan Bourke

    I remember spamming by fax.

    Happy days.

    Japan is curiously traditional in some things. My missus taught English out there, the teachers got paid via a large bundle of notes in a rubber band left on their desk in the staff room.

    1. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: I remember spamming by fax.

      You remember it? Spam seems to be the only thing our office fax machine prints out, albeit once every couple of months.

  17. Dave 126 Silver badge

    This story...

    ... was 'tweeted' by William Gibson a few days back. (This was my first look into the world of Twitter- I was curious to see Gibson's take on Prometheus, since it re-used an idea from his Alien 3 script)

    Neuromancer was written on a typewriter, and subsequent books-in-progress would be printed everyday, just in case all the computers failed : D

  18. Jim Coleman


    Ah yes, FAXing. Does one place a "9" before the number or not. Seemed to me that whichever method I guessed was always wrong. some offices ran the FAX line through their PABX, others didn't. and NONE of them told you whether you needed the extra digit or not.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Believe it or not

    Another popular use for faxes - domain name registrations.

    Because, ya know, that web thing is not to be trusted

  20. Semaj

    Old Stuff

    Actually the Japanese quite often use old tech as well as new because they tend not to replace stuff if it's still working. I found it rather amusing to see old terminals and dot matrix printers in the station where you get the Shinkansen from.

  21. Dr. Ellen


    There's another reason to use fax: security. As another elReg article of this day notes, "the internet never forgets". But the telephone isn't the internet. (Your telephone may vary.) I write the message, I fax the message, you get the message. Our faxen hang up. There are two paper copies, but unless our phone has been tapped, there is no electronic copy to be found twenty years later by some geek halfway around the world.

    Of course sooner or later assorted governments will tap and record everything, and that security will be gone. But at least the person you're looking to get a date with, or a job, won't have it.

  22. Dinky Carter

    Japan's high tech image is only skin deep

    Everyday life in Japan is pretty low tech.

    Everything seems to be done via snail mail. Online accounts (for utilities, govt services, train tickets etc) are generally not available. As a small example, when flying almost nobody checks-in online in Japan. (I once spent 30 mins walking a Japanese couple though a successful online check-in, and then when they eventually got to Narita they still queued up for 45 mins at a normal check-in desk.)

    Internet banking is available, but is just a portal by which a real bank clerk is given instructions to perform the tasks requested online. ATMs typically shut down around 9 or 10pm (thank god for Citibank!) Most mobiles and public telephones are incapable of dialling overseas. And a modern Japanese kitchen is like something from 50s America. Even a hand operated rotary tin can opener had my mother-in-law fascinated.

    The exception is of course toilets and baths, where most of the available technology in a typical household is to be found.

    But the thing about Japan is even though stuff may be old or low tech, it's always perfectly maintained. Things are rarely 'out-of-order' in Japan.

    1. Ilgaz

      Re: Japan's high tech image is only skin deep

      Knowing Japanese, I admire their "use technology when it really enhances a process" and "don't re-invent wheel" attitude.

      Is there a more practical/ fast way to send less than 5 pages to another location? If there was and they ignored it, that would sound weird. The real issue is ever rising need for paper.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm so old

    I can even remember not seeing any point in our company having a fax machine. What would we do with it?

    Then we got one....

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Sniff an email arriving?

    Do you remember the first email you got, exiting wasn't it, less so now perhaps.

    There was a time when the smell of an incoming Fax had a little intrigue, simpler times.

    Where are my slippers nurse?

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