Encountering Robots While Still Using Fax Machines in Japan

Encountering Robots While Still Using Fax Machines in Japan

Tuesday, 5 December, 2017 - 13:30
Motoko Rich, The New York Times’s Tokyo bureau chief, with Pepper, a robot made by SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate. Credit Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
New York- Motoko Rich
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Motoko Rich, The Times’s Tokyo bureau chief, discussed the tech she's using.

What kind of tech tools do you use to cover news in Japan?

Probably the most important piece of hardware I regularly use — aside from my laptop and cellphone — is a backup battery to recharge my phone and power my laptop on the road.

North Korean missile tests have disproportionately occurred while I have been out of the office reporting on another story or attending a school event for my children, or over the weekend. So if I have to set up on the side of a soccer field or on a bus, I just plug my phone and laptop into a Mophie Powerstation XXL, a battery the size of a mass-market paperback (although considerably heavier).

I also have a much smaller battery that I can use to juice up my phone when it starts to die from too much live tweeting, but the XXL comes in handy if I actually have to report and write a whole story away from the office or my home or a hotel room. In such a situation, I will use either a portable Wi-Fi or the personal hotspot on my cellphone to get online.

Twitter is very popular in Japan, so if we want to get a sense of the mood about a particular breaking news story — much as we do in the United States — my researchers will scan Twitter or Facebook to get a sense of how people are reacting to news. Occasionally a tweet can be the seed of a feature story.


Earthquake apps like QuakeFeed are also helpful in quake-prone Japan, not to mention as early indicators of nuclear tests in North Korea.

Since I make a lot of calls to analysts and government officials in the United States either very early in the morning or late at night (Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of New York and Washington), I try to use WhatsApp or Skype to call people abroad since my Japanese cell plan charges extra for overseas calls. My small beef with the academics who specialize in Japan and the Korean Peninsula is that so many of them seem incapable or unwilling to use internet-based calling apps.

What interesting tech trends do you see emerging in Japan that haven't yet reached the United States?

Robots! I frequently run into a version of Pepper, a child-size cartoonish robot made by SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate. Its founder, Masayoshi Son, has recently talked about the coming “Singularity,” in which artificial intelligence outstrips humans. I encountered an android tourist greeter at a mall, and television news programs frequently feature some new application of robotic technology, from restaurant servers to nursing home caregivers.

For personal texting, Line, a communications app that started after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is extremely popular. So I communicate with friends, my staff and even the woman who cuts my hair using Line. Part of the reason it's so popular here is its wide variety of emoticons and digital stickers.

How do you use tech differently in Japan than you did in the United States?

The weird thing about Japan is that although it seems technologically advanced, it is still behind the times in many ways. As The Times has written before, the fax machine is still a cherished piece of technology in Japan. Many sources demand that we send requests for interviews and sample questions via fax and will simply not accept an email. I can’t remember the last time I sent or received a fax in the United States.

My 11-year-old son has a small “keitai,” or kids’ cellphone, that is programmed so he can only call or receive calls from me, my husband or his sister. By the time we left Brooklyn in 2016, it seemed like most kids his age either didn't have a phone at all, or had a smartphone. A lot of Japanese children, as young as age 6, have such keitais, which enable them to independently travel on subways and walk to and from school on their own while still being reachable. We often run into very small children on their own on the subway platform, the small phones dangling from their backpacks.

Mobile payment systems have been slow to gain traction in America. How about in Japan?

Unlike China, where people pay for almost everything with smartphones, Japan is resolutely a cash-based society. There are many restaurants that will not accept credit cards, much less mobile payments.

Japan has a prepaid card, known as Suica, that is mostly used to pay for train fares but can also be used to pay for items from vending machines or convenience stores as well as taxi rides. Mobile payments via Suica have been available on mobile phones in Japan since 2006. Although these systems have been around for years, this technology hasn’t spread to popular devices like the iPhone until recently.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp are lifelines for staying in touch with friends and family back home. My 13-year-old daughter regularly talks to her best friends in Brooklyn and in England on FaceTime, and the other day I Skyped into a meeting of my Brooklyn book group.

I really only began posting regularly to Instagram once I moved to Japan, because I want everyone at home to be able to see what I’m seeing every day, here and in South Korea, where I travel regularly to report. Japan and Korea are visually sumptuous places, and, yes, I am one of those clichéd people who post photos of their lunches.

My daughter is obsessed with Snapchat and streaks, an activity whose point I have yet to grasp. But I have been surprised by the number of times she'll tell me that she has seen some news item on Instagram or Snapchat, an activity whose point I wholeheartedly endorse.

Not long after we moved here, we caved and bought AppleTV and subscribed to a VPN so that we could keep up with our favorite American TV shows and movies. Much as I think it is important to experience as much of the local culture as possible, I know that keeping on top of the popular culture from home is a way of staying connected to friends and family, too. Streaming, though, is often sluggish, and the screen will freeze in the middle of a show while we stare balefully at the loading spinner.

The robotics industry is important to Japan. Meanwhile, personal digital assistants like Siri and Google Assistant are trendy in the United States. Where do you think this is all taking us?

Unlike in the United States, where workers fear automation taking over their jobs, robotics are embraced here in Japan by the government, corporate sector and broader society. The government is anti-immigration, so one of its oft-cited solutions to a declining population and shrinking labor force is to rely increasingly on artificial intelligence.

Whether robots can actually accomplish all the tasks they are being promoted for is an open question. I wonder whether something as personal as nursing home care can really be outsourced to robots. As a parent, I would hate the thought that robots would be used in day care facilities, unless it was just for food preparation or cleanup.

(The New York Times)

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