Home > Musings, Software > Computers in Japan: Advanced Technological Literacy does not imply Computer Literacy

Computers in Japan: Advanced Technological Literacy does not imply Computer Literacy

September 7th, 2006

Despite being known for their advance electronics, robots, bullet trains (Shikansen), their nation wide Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS), and being known as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, Japan and the Japanese people do not use computers as much as their Western (North American) counterparts.
This computer phenomenon was riveting as I lived, worked, and traveled through Asia. Here’s the situation as I perceived it.

Personal computers (PCs) and operating systems (OSs) were developed in the Western world in the English language. In the early 90s the standards for Unicode version 1.0 were set to facilitate the development of multilingual systems. Microsoft’s Windows 3.1J (3.1 in the Japanese language) was released in 1993. Windows 95 and NT supported the basics of the Japanese language, and Windows NT (1993) was the first Microsoft OS to use Unicode internally. By the time a Japanese version of Windows was available the West had already been using Windows 1 – 3.1x and a couple other OSs – Japan was already well behind the Western PC wave.


Image taken from Flickr

The names of people, places and even sushi could not be expressed using the early versions of Unicode. The Japanese language is written with three types of glyphs (Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana) and uses a Latin based language (Romaji), and western style numerals. Kanji (an ancient Chinese based language) is said to have about 50,000 characters _ for basic literacy you’ll need to know over 2,000 different Kanji characters. Katakana and Hiragana are each composed of about 46 basic characters. Romanji is similar to the English alphabet with 26 characters. With the addition of the western style numerals, symbols, punctuation, uppercase, lowercase, etc… there is an overwhelming number of characters. The Unicode standards were not able to support this sophisticated collection of characters, making PCs inadequate for government, business, and even personal use – subsequently slowing the use of PCs in Japan.

Unicode has come a long way since it was first introducted. Today most Japanese computer users have an English based keyboard and use Romanji – a phonetic equivalence to some Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana glyphs – to select various glyphs, issues commands, write documents, and control their computer. As a phonetic equivalent Romanji has a number of it’s own translation issues. For example: Salary man is pronounced more like Sarary man, Orange is pronounced like Orangy, Adam is sometimes pronounced Adamu. This is just another contributor to the slow adoption of the PC.

A country in isolation; not only is Japan geographically isolated from the rest of Asia, but in 1641 Japan isolated themselves from the outside world for 213 years (until 1853). Anyone entering or leaving the country faced the death penalty – this time period is known as Sakoku. The effects of isolation have played a significant role in Japanese society and business. Japan still prides itself in being self sufficient and often (understandably) displays anti-globalization / Not Invented Here (NIH) tendencies – these dispositions can also be attributed to the slow adoption of PCs in Japan.


Image taken from Flickr

A sophisticated and complex social structure; Japan has roughly the same land mass as the state of California (US), with four times the population of California, but only 1/4 of Japan is inhabitable – the remainder of land is mountainous or volcanic. To compensate for the minimal space and large population the Japanese have developed a very sophisticated social structure over the past couple thousand years. This social structure is based on community and respect – giving up most respect to deceased ancestors and the elderly. Most people try to maintain harmony within their community. From my observations people shy from criticizing and most decisions must be discussed with all affected parties. Similarly many companies are still somewhat based on the feudal system where positions are heriditary – Presidents, CEOs, etc… are born into their respective positions rather than being selected for their experience or skills. It’s also fair to mention that most Jobs are for life – having multiple jobs is a sign of weakness – and as an employee you are expected to put the requirements of the company over any of your personal needs. A white-collar worker (Salaryman) often works absurd hours (unproductively) due to the cultural tradition of not leaving work before colleauges, and I’ve been told that some companies even have burial grounds for their employees. In these existing structures, almost all Japanese people have a job or a distinct place within society. The introduction of the PCs and the leaps in efficiency and productivity that follow would lead to many layoffs and disruptions within these otherwise harmonious structures.

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Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Musings, Software Tags:
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