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Why Is It Unusual For Japanese People To Use Computers?

by Justin Sevakis,

Shomik asks:

When I was watching Tanaka-kun is Always Listless, which takes place in the present day, as well as playing the visual novel Root Double, which takes place in 2030 (and written a year or two ago), I come across lines like "Oh, you can use a computer? Impressive!" (said by a high-schooler) or "My hobby is computers, so I go on the internet too," (said by a 35 year old man, whose job is a high tech researcher) which strike me as strange and something I would never hear stateside, especially from teenagers or mid-20's adults. I would understand it if it was a work that was published around the turn of the century, but it seems out of place now. Is there an apprehension towards computers or something in Japan? Or are these isolated incidents?

For decades, Japan has enjoyed a reputation for being a very high-tech society. As a result, most Westerners are shocked to learn that when it comes to computer literacy, Japan lags far, far, FAR behind the Western world.

How far behind? According to a 2015 study by the Japanese Cabinet Office, only 30% of Japanese high schoolers use laptops, and only 16% use desktop computers. (In the US, 98% of our teenagers use one or the other, with similar numbers out of the UK.) According to one study I found, about 50% of Japanese households have a computer, but many people don't use them, or only use them for games or web browsing. The majority of Japanese students use the internet exclusively through cell phones.

Part of this is their educational system. While everybody does have to take a computer sciences class in high school, students only learn the most basic interactions with Microsoft Word and Excel. And since there is no daily use of this technology (virtually no classes outside of college require that papers be typed), anything learned in these classes is quickly forgotten.

Parents, unaware that computer skills are increasingly necessary for employment, don't buy computers for their kids. It's sort of like where America was in the early 90s: computers are for the nerds. So since computers are seen as an unnecessary luxury, there also exists a class divide: lower income households are far less likely to have a computer. Schools that are run by less tech-savvy faculty also tend to pass on scare stories about bad things that happen online, and warn kids against exploring too much. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported last September that of the 42 countries they surveyed for computer use in education, Japan was ranked second from the bottom.

The result is that computer literacy among the youth of Japan is actually going down. One Tokyo-area government-funded tech cram school for high schoolers reported that many of their students didn't even really know how to use a physical keyboard. Even many teachers can't touch-type. Many college programs do require at least some degree of computer usage, and many people do pick up computer skills at university, but even some IT firms are reporting that new hires are unable to do simple things like compose an email or create a chart.

There are a few cultural and historical reasons for this problem. Early computer systems really struggled with the difficulties of supporting the Japanese language, limiting their usefulness in the 80s and early 90s. Socially, the computer was often seen as a solitary, antisocial activity -- something to be discouraged by parents, who lived in a world where getting ahead meant face-to-face communication and discussion.

And so, if you like computers in Japan, you are a nerd. And as we are all aware, Japan grows some really, really impressive nerds. While the rest of the country falls further and further behind, the country has started depending on its nerds to keep their businesses and their economy going. And they're getting paid well, too: the average fresh-out-of-college new hire makes around ¥198,000 (US$1,925) per month, but starting salary at tech companies like DeNA, GREE and Rakuten can be as much as 50%-80% more.

Sure explains how they get all that money for expensive blu-rays and character merchandise, doesn't it?

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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