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Japanese fax fans rally to defence of much-maligned machine

Japanese fax fans rally to defence of much-maligned machine

Most bureaucrats might be expected to welcome the chance to be freed from the tyranny of the fax machine. But in Japan, government plans to send the must-have item of 1980s office equipment the way of telex have in effect been scrapped after they encountered resistance from “faxophile” officials.

A cabinet body that promotes administrative reform said in June it had decided to abolish the use of fax machines “as a rule” by the end of the month and switch to emails at ministries and agencies in the Tokyo district of Kasumigaseki, Japan’s bureaucratic nerve centre.

The move would enable more people to work from home, it said, citing concerns that too many people were still going to the office during the coronavirus pandemic to send and receive faxes.

Exceptions would be made for disaster response and interactions with the public and businesses that had traditionally depended on faxes.

Instead of embracing the digital age, however, hundreds of government offices mounted a defence of the much-maligned machine, insisting that banishing them would be “impossible”, according to the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper.

The backlash has forced the government to abandon its mission to turn officialdom into a digital-only operation, the newspaper said on Wednesday.

Members of the resistance said there were concerns over the security of sensitive information and “anxiety over the communication environment” if, as the government had requested, they switched exclusively to email.

Japanese ministries and agencies use faxes when handling highly confidential information, including court procedures and police work, and the Hokkaido Shimbun said there were fears that exclusively online communication would result in security lapses.

“Although many ministries and agencies may have stopped using fax machines, I can’t say with pride that we managed to get rid of most of them,” an official at the cabinet body told the newspaper.

The war on fax machines is part of an attempt by the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to improve efficiency by embracing digitalisation for administrative procedures.

Last year he ordered officials to draw up plans to stop using hanko seals on documents, a tradition that had been criticised as outdated and necessitating face-to-face interaction that risked spreading Covid-19.

Hanko are widely used in Japan for signing contracts, business transactions and various administrative procedures, including enrolling in the national pension programme. Ministries were urged to end hanko requirements for 785 types of procedure, or 96% of the total, including year-end tax adjustments and tax returns.

But some in the private sector were sceptical about Japan’s belated embrace of paperless bureaucracy. While almost 75% of executives at small and medium-sized businesses told a survey last year they were in favour of abolishing hanko, just over half conceded it would be difficult to end the practice.

The move also met with opposition from politicians representing areas known for their hand-carved hanko, who described them as a “symbol of Japan”.


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