Who knew Japan could be so nostalgic?

The country is renowned for innovations like its bullet train and robot technology, but it also has retained a firm grip on a technology which has faded largely into oblivion Stateside. The fax machine.

Last year alone, Japanese households bought 1.7 million old-style fax machines, which print documents on slick, glossy paper spooled in the back, according to The New York Times. The Japanese government’s Cabinet Office said that almost 100% of business offices and 45% of private homes had a fax machine in 2011.

“Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by,” The Times observed.

Japan’s fixation on this outdated technology sheds light on why the country which at one time revolutionized consumer electronics (it is the birthplace of hand-held calculators, Walkmans, and the fax machine after all) is no longer at the forefront in the current digital age, and why it has allowed competitors like South Korea and China slip ahead.

In Japan, except for the savviest of the Internet start-ups or manufacturers whose reach spans internationally, the fax remains essential in business. Experts believe that the fax remains the preferred technology because it generates paperwork onto which bureaucrats can affix their hanko, or stamps of approval. Many companies eschew newer technology because the fax creates a paper trail of orders and shipments more transient than that of e-mail. Banks choose faxes because their customers worry about the safety of their personal information on the Internet.

After the earthquake and tsunami rattled northeastern Japan in 2011, fax sales enjoyed a small boom as people replaced machines that had been washed away. One model which sold particularly well was a battery-powered fax that could keep working in spite of mounting natural disasters.

It also helps fax machine manufacturers that Japan’s written language is so complex, with two sets of symbols and 2,000 characters borrowed from Chinese. In fact, keyboards were largely unnecessary until word processors were invented in the 1980s.

How the fax will fare when Japan’s future generations helm the country’s large businesses and corporations, no one knows. But for now at least, the fax can enjoy a position of use outside of museums and junk shops.

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