Frenetic High Technology, Sushi and Giant Robots

After a couple of months in Tokyo it is high time I fulfilled my promise of writing something about the experience so far. My apologies for the long delay in posting any update, this has been in large part due to the length of time it is taking to get an Internet connection installed at our flat, indeed I’ve written this piece at home and popped into a cafĂ© with Wifi to actually post it and even the ability to do that has been a sore trial.

These two things will doubtless shock people not familiar with Japan or only familiar with it through the lense of its exported media. The over ridding impression westerners have of Japan is that it is a high paced, frenetically busy society powered by high technology and sushi which occasionally gets menaced by giant robots. These impressions are not wrong, they are simply distorted slightly.

Yes, there is high technology – we have mobile phones here that can monitor your blood pressure and be used like London’s Oyster cards on the transit system. Phones with solar chargers, TV tuners, radio tuners, MP3 players and Internet access. The mobile phone is in fact the primary Internet connection device in Japan. If you say “Internet” to a Japanese, they will think of a mobile phone, not a web browser. Now that’s pretty cool, you might think, but how many Japanese mobiles are sold abroad? Can you think of a single Japanese manufacturer’s phones being sold in Europe or the US? The answer is pretty much “none” and the reasons are two-fold: First the most popular phone format here is clam shell and that just isn’t as popular elsewhere. Second every phone has its own dedicated OS written to support the extra gadgetry strapped onto it, so porting your phone to another language means re-writing that code for every device you want to sell abroad. Secondly the actual Internet experience on these devices is monumentally awful – they can handle text pretty well but nothing else and email is via an application that resembles SMS – indeed no one uses SMS here instead there is email on your phone.

This can make it tricky for the Japanese-learning foreigner living here to actually get a phone they can a) use b) is anywhere near as good as the Android G1 they were used to. In fact the only option for a while was the iPhone, which is what my work gave me, and I have quickly come to loathe, again a consequence of using the much better Android phone. I’m sure for music lovers it is a great device and, I’m willing to accept the Mac fan boy flames for this, it is very pretty but that is where it’s usability as a communication tool ends for me. I occasionally have to use it to fill in a form as part of my job – typing anything on that keyboard is just flat impossible. In order to get anything of the iStore, even free applications, I’d need to register a Japanese credit card – guess what I don’t have. My UK one wont do and my Japanese debit card is not accepted. Luckily the HTC Magic has just been released here which, despite having a smaller screen estate than the iPhone, has a keyboard that is usable and a wealth of applications I can actually install. And copy and paste. And switching between applications. And Skype. And probably even Google Voice at sometime soon.

So I have joined the great Japanese technological Internet revolution using a Korean phone running a US OS based on a Finnish kernel. And every Japanese who sees it is amazed at how good it is compared to their phone – even the Kanji input system is better. Now if only it came in a clam shell format and could measure blood pressure…

Catching up on web pages or posting the odd note on Facebook is within my grasp with this device but I still need a proper Internet connection. We’ve been making do with occasional trips to McDonald’s or Becks Coffee Shops which have mymobile(TM) WiFi access. In order to connect to these you need to know the super-secret 56bit WEP key. I know. If I could have got on to the Internet for a few minutes to grab a couple of tools I could crack that in a few minutes. However the first time you need to log in to a web page with your ISP provided username and password in order to get the WEP key. Pause a second and read that sentence again, can you see the flaw? Much faffing with mobile Internet later we have the WEP key and get connected. Then a different username and password is required to get past the web page sentry… some judicious guesswork allows us to work out what this should be.

Why is this so hard? Most folk who use these are using WiFi on their phones which have come with the mymobile(TM) connection already setup. The instructions you receive for using it on anything else are factually inaccurate and require you to hunt around the Internet for answers. Which you can’t do ‘cos you can’t get onto the Internet.

It was a frustrating time, but now we have worked out how to do it we an use the mymobile(TM) spots where ever we find them which is basically airports, McDonald’s and Becks coffee shops.

Again this does not sound like the technologically advanced Japan of our imaginations, sure the phones are groovy if handicapped in some surprising ways but WiFi access being so hard? Even Starbucks here doesn’t have it. And why have I still not got any Internet at the flat? Well that is not so much a technological limitation as a bureaucratic one.

Going back to frenetic pace, technology, sushi and giant robots; the pace of life and work here can be pretty rapid although in truth it tends to feel long rather than fast. The trains are busy and packed and move fast == any length of time spent in one is a long time. People work all the daylight hours and a good deal of the dark ones as well != working quickly or efficiently. Powered by sushi and noodles is certainly true and I quite like that bit. As for the giant robots that destroy Tokyo? The large clambering mass that has the ability to destroy Japan is its addiction to long and slow bureaucracy. For now, suffice it to say that I hope to have Internet at home by this time next week, but then I have been in the same situation for weeks now so I am not holding my breath – bureaucracy has been the enemy but more on that next time.

2 Replies to “Frenetic High Technology, Sushi and Giant Robots”

  1. Hi Jamie.

    Great blog. You have managed to blow away all my pre conceived ideas about Japan in the space of a 5 minute read!

    Will be checking in for more updates (when you get internet connection!).



  2. My brother got a japanse iPhone and Jail broke it. It not works with other sim cards and the apps are free.

    I’m interested in the kanji input for the Magic, it is a downloadable app for other phones?

    I’d agree that what at first makes Japanese technology looks advanced is that fact that rather than being ahead of what we have it’s seems tangential to what we have because the Japanese people have different priorities to westerners.