In a recent outpouring on social media, a respiratory medicine specialist in Japan expressed his frustration with the country’s legal requirement that hospitals complete paperwork on new coronavirus cases by hand and then fax it to public health centers. His tweet, stating “Come on, let’s stop this. Reporting cases in handwriting? Even with the coronavirus, we are writing by hand and faxing,” brought attention to an aspect of administrative procedure that has sparked conversation both within Japan and internationally. He even went on to call the practice “Showa period stuff,” referring to an imperial era in Japan.
This reliance on faxing is not an isolated incident. A government study in Japan has shown that almost every office in the country, as well as one in three households, has a fax machine. The process’s inefficiency, particularly during a health crisis, led to many social media users echoing the doctor’s sentiments.
A professor commented, “I’m speechless. In Japan, Covid-19 cases are reported on a paper form filled in by hand, then sent by fax (!!) or postal mail (!!). No wonder tracking the real number [of cases] has been utter chaos there.” This seems to have resonated with many others, with another Twitter user demanding, “This is 2020. Please stop this nonsense, Japan.”
The government has reacted, with the minister in charge of IT policy, Masaaki Taira, declaring that he would “deal with the problem.” As of May 10, doctors will have the option to send reports via email.
The situation has also prompted a broader reflection on some of Japan’s long-standing traditions, such as the “hanko” seal required for official documents. With the push for telecommuting during the pandemic, there has been a review of the practice, leading to the development of digital “hanko.”
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, has expressed hope that this could be a turning point for the nation. He noted that the pandemic might serve as an “added incentive for them to adopt new ways because it has just highlighted how antiquated systems can be a problem for the health of the people and damaging to the national interest.”
But it’s not just about the transition from old to new. Kingston has a future-looking view, believing that the generation that has held onto fax machines “will all be retiring in a few years so that will fade away.”
The story of Japan’s fax machines is more than just a tale of technology. It’s a window into a complex interplay between tradition, efficiency, and adaptability, especially in a time where speed and connectivity have never been more critical. It’s an intriguing glance at a society that is both embracing and questioning the tools that have served them for decades.
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