Lack of Tech in the Land of Robots and Hybrid Cars by Neal Chambers

Part of the series: Investigating International Edtech Issues (Japan’s Edtech Issues)

Tokyo (shibuya) taken by Neal Chambers
Famous crossing where a million people are in the street all at the same time.

Before I came to Japan, I imagined a place full of people flying around on jet packs and the streets full of robots.  I think growing up, we saw all those specials on TV about how Japan has theme parks powered by garbage and everything is clean and beautiful.  I marveled at the giant car garages that resembled car vending machines.
Although the giant car vending machines do exist, they really aren’t that cool.  I mean you can dress it up all you want, but it’s just a parking garage and I don’t drive. But, I diverge.  The point is, Japan is not overrun with technology.  The technology that does exist has to because of the utter lack of space.  Computers and televisions keep getting smaller simply because there is no space to put bigger pieces of electronics.

Edutech in Schools

I teach at a private conversation school here in Japan.  We teach adults in the business district; mostly people from the import/export industry as well as textile dealers, and fashion designers.  We have everything from chocolate bar sales reps to lingerie designers.  So I’ve taught a variety of people from many walks of life.
What is strange though is that a lot of them still rely on low-tech to get the message out.  I’m not sure why this is.  I’ve had several people attempt to explain it to me, but I still haven’t been able to put my finger on it.

Kaiyukan by Neal Chambers
Famous landmark/ aquarium in Osaka (where I live/teach); has two whale sharks!

At our school we hardly make use of any technology.  I think the only electronic thing I use on a regular basis is my CD player.  We do have a nifty auto-check in the computer that students can just swipe their card and a little slip of paper gets spit out with their room number and teacher on it.  They can even punch in their phone number on a touch screen to check in if they forgot their card.
High schools are similarly equipped.  Most of them still have chalkboards and basic desks.  What is worse is that often times classes can be full of 35-40 students.  There are computer classes in high schools and knowing how to use a computer is a part of the guidelines set forth by the education ministry of Japan.  However, I’ve heard teachers complain that some 1st year high schoolers have never used a computer!
Universities are a lot better thankfully.  A lot of them are equipped with large high-tech computer labs that I never saw when I was in college.  A lot of the lecture halls have all the standard equipment, projectors, video players, multiple inputs and outputs, all the goodies.
Corporations that I’ve taught at use some tech, but web 2.0 has not come to Japan, yet.  Most people have no concept of the social web.  The tech that is being used is very late 90s.  This is evident on a lot of levels.

Social Networking

Festival held every year where people dance and occasionally fall to their untimely deaths on the top of rolling wooden shrines; advertised as the most dangerous festival in Japan.
Festival held every year where people dance and occasionally fall to their untimely deaths on the top of rolling wooden shrines; advertised as the most dangerous festival in Japan.

Twitter has a very small presence here despite being available in Japanese.  According to a recent survey, only about 16% of people have even heard of Twitter.  About 2.3% of people in Japan have used Twitter.  If you want more proof of this, I’m currently ranked in the Twitter elite for Osaka with just over 500 followers (I’m usually in the 30s).
As for social networks, Facebook is slowly gaining ground.  There is another Japan-only social  network called Mixi which is in its death throes.  Mixi is invite only, and requires a Japanese mobile phone email address.  It has an antiquated advertising model and (in my honest opinion) overly complicated system of blogging and messaging although Mashable says otherwise.  Not to mention the fact that it just recently banned dating.
Advertising in Japan has not advanced to the social interactive stage yet.  This is baffling to most westerners because they seem to have taken traditional marketing to all new extremes.  For political campaigns they drive around blaring messages out of sound trucks.  Or they interrupt you while you walk down the street and try to shove a flyer in your hand.

Japanese Cultural Values

Landmark which is the beacon for fried stuff on a stick (kushi katsu) and fugu (blowfish/pufferfish); also the yakuza neighborhood.
Landmark which is the beacon for fried stuff on a stick (kushi katsu) and fugu (blowfish/pufferfish); also the yakuza neighborhood.

I think the major reason for this slow down is that Japan is a culture concerned with privacy.  Japan has been a traditionally closed society, despite some outpourings here and there, it has mostly remained closed.  This is a good thing in some ways.  A very unique culture has developed over the years.
Business in Japan is mostly done face to face.  They have several meetings to discuss things and  are constantly taking business trips.  Meetings that would normally take place via teleconferencing are instead done in person.  This is taken to extremes a lot of times.  I think companies could easily cut 10% out of their budgets with some videoconferencing and less meetings.  I think this is why there hasn’t been a big increase in the use of communications equipment.

Cell Phones in Japan

An example of a barcode people scan to get web addresses on their cell phones.
An example of a barcode people scan to get web addresses on their cell phones.
Cell phones are by far the most important piece of technology to someone in Japan.  You can always see people on cell phones texting away on their way to work or way back home.  As a matter of fact there have been novels written solely with cell phones during the commute.  Teenagers and adults know there cell phones backwards and forewords.  This is how they usually access the Internet.  Any company that wants to survive needs to have a mobile website.  On advertisements you will see a QR barcode that has the web address of the company.  Cell phones have special scanners that read the barcode and take you to the website.
Cell phones are so pervasive actually that a culture has grown up around them.  If you really want it to be, your cell phone can really do everything for you here.  It can be your wallet, your train pass, your camera, your video camera, your calendar, your gaming system, your television, your radio, your GPS … Actually one of the complaints about the iPhone when it first came to Japan was that it didn’t have enough features.  Some of my students still complain about this and actually have two phones, one regular cell phone and an iPhone.
One of the leading questions at edutech presentations here is “Can my students access this with their cell phones?”  It is a lot easier to get students to do something on their cell phones then to get them into a computer lab.  This has obviously led to some boundaries with edutech.
Neal Chamber's headshot
Neal Chambers has taught in Japan for just about 5 years despite graduating in video production. He is currently teaching at a private English conversation school in Osaka. He is a regular teacher contributor at where he writes the series Teacher Stumpers about difficult and odd grammar. He enjoys attempting to climb mountains without injuring himself.

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