Whether You Fear or Embrace New Tech Depends on Where You’re From
East Asian technological innovations have long outpaced those in the West. Products that sound like recent or even future innovations to most Westerners have been available for decades in Asia, particularly in Japan. These include:
A handheld device that enables customers to order food and drinks from their karaoke room
A button attached to the table that customers push to alert a waitress
A slew of vending machines that sell everything you can imagine: alcohol, ramen, underwear, umbrellas, rice, newspapers, cell phones
Love hotels where guests can check in discreetly without interacting with other human beings
Tourists visiting Japan for the first time often feel compelled to take a photo of the ubiquitous high-tech washlet toilets. These fixtures are hardly new; they have been on the market since 1980 and have more than 80 percent market penetration. Years before the Internet of Things became a phenomenon in the West, Japanese people were using their mobile phones to run their baths remotely while in a cab. They were also using a single card on their phones to buy groceries from a store, get green tea from a vending machine, and pay the fare for trains and buses.
Evidence from cross-national academic research suggests that the speed of innovation adoption has historically been significantly faster in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan than in the U.S. Aside from various market conditions and economic factors, why have Japanese people historically been more comfortable than Westerners with the new and the strange?
Japanese Culture and Technology
Japanese culture is built on a unique amalgam of beliefs and values that stem from Shintoism (Japan’s native and oldest religion), Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and a variety of folk religions. While delving into the principles of each philosophy is beyond the current scope, it is impossible to truly comprehend the Japanese predisposition for adopting novelty without touching on the attitudes and morals that originate from these teachings.
Members of a collectivistic society, such as Japan, are expected to pay attention to social cues and focus on the greater good of the group. In Japan, first-generation emojis were introduced by J-Phone (November 1997), and then in black and white (February 1999) and in color (December 1999) by DoCoMo. Emojis gave Japanese people, who are not culturally inclined to engage directly and explicitly, a perfect tool to communicate in a more expressive but safely ambiguous, inoffensive manner.
Similarly, vending machines have provided Japanese people with the convenience and comfort of avoiding human interaction while purchasing products. The question of necessity aside, it is remarkable that Japan has the highest density of vending machines in the world, with approximately one vending machine for every 23 people — generating more than $60 billion in total annual sales.
Social interactions in Japan are governed by unwritten but specific rules that people must follow in order to avoid conflict with others at all costs. Individuals are expected to constantly monitor their own behavior and its consequences in the name of social harmony. This can be psychologically taxing, so Japanese people often welcome the opportunity to interact with automated machines that cannot get upset and do not require an apology.
This tendency to avoid conflict is also reflected in how the Japanese approach religious customs and traditions. Japanese people have no issues ringing in a Shinto New Year, celebrating Christmas, and having Buddhist funerals. The dichotomizing us-vs.-them mentality that shows up in many aspects of Western—particularly American—culture (think: Hollywood movies, especially humans vs. aliens, humans vs. avatars, and blacks vs. whites) is not part of the cultural fabric, as that would go against the ultimate societal objective to maintain social harmony. When the Japanese are confronted by potentially dichotomizing situations, the mentality is more separation (us and them) than opposition (us vs. them).
Further, unlike the Western analytic style of thinking that is rooted in Greek rationality and linear logic, the Eastern dialectic style of thinking welcomes contradictions and ambiguity. While Westerners tend to prefer clear dichotomies, East Asians are able to mentally reconcile contradictions by introducing contextual factors that may have influenced the situation. As a result, the Japanese imagine a more blurred line between humans and other objects and beings.
The Embrace of Innovation
Japanese businesses have contributed to the greater good of society by developing problem-solving innovations through an emphasis on kaizen, or improving and perfecting what already exists. Many of these innovations are technologies that aid (SoftBank Robotics’ helper robots Pepper and Nao) or elevate (the Sony Walkman) consumers’ everyday lives. Japanese people tend to perceive innovation and technology as positive and amiable. In contrast, investment in innovation and technological advancement in the West, particularly in the U.S., has often been associated with military applications.
Moreover, Hollywood films have overwhelmingly depicted AI technologies as something that humans should fear. Common themes include robots and machines that gain superior intelligence and take control of the world, Big Brother governments that use technology to watch over and control people, and cybersecurity breaches that jeopardize privacy and safety. Technology appears less friendly, and often intimidating and ominous, to Westerners.
Ever since the European Court of Justice ordered internet search engines to honor people’s “right to be forgotten,” Google has received more than 650,000 requests to remove certain websites from the internet. From this perspective, it is no surprise that Japanese people display less resistance to interacting with inanimate objects and unconventional beings including machines, virtual beings (such as avatars and virtual girlfriends), and robots.
Kami and Animism
The other, perhaps more intriguing, reason stems from the Shinto belief in kami—which can be loosely translated as god, spirit, divinity, or deity—and animism, or the notion that everything, including manmade things, has a spirit and should be respected. This belief is ingrained in various aspects of life in Japan, and is arguably a core foundation of the Japanese mentality. Kami are thought to exist everywhere — natural, weather-related phenomena such as rain and thunder, living things such as trees and animals, earthly formations such as mountains and rivers, or things in space such as the sun and the moon.
Japanese children are taught from a very young age to treat everything well and with care, including teddy bears, rocks, and even trash. One is expected to empathize with all things in life and never kick, throw, step on, or handle them roughly. This empathy extends to Japanese people’s relationship with land. Before any new construction is built, a Shinto priest conducts a groundbreaking ceremony, or Jichinsai, to pay respects to the land and its local guardians.
Another notable and more modern representation of this animistic faith is the uniquely Japanese proclivity for anthropomorphism, or the tendency to personify inanimate objects. It is not uncommon for Japanese workers to name machinery in a manufacturing facility. For example, one manufacturer called one of its robots Nobunaga, the name of a famous Japanese feudal lord. Similarly, mascots are often an integral part of a business entity’s brand and marketing efforts. The Japan Post has an entire community of teddy bear characters with names such as Posu-Kuma, Posu-Milk, and Posu-Toast who, as the story goes, happily work together at a post office in the forest.
Again, in this cultural context, interacting with robots and imaginary beings is not so unusual, and is arguably perceived as an extension of existing animistic behaviors and beliefs. LovePlus, a Nintendo DS game first released by Konami in 2009, enabled lonely single males in Japan to travel on a so-called real couple’s vacation with their virtual girlfriends. Henna Hotel is a tech-forward hotel concept focused on optimizing business efficiency. The hotel uses a multilingual dinosaur robot to help guests check into their rooms. Robot arms store guests’ belongings, and there is a virtual-reality karaoke room where guests can sing their hearts out while surrounded by 50,000 virtual fans. Recently, as part of an effort to alleviate the growing strains on Japan’s aging society and resulting rising demand in Buddhist priests for funerals, a Buddhist funeral robot was introduced at an industry fair.
It is a gross oversimplification to put all Asian cultures into a single bucket. However, certain commonalities in beliefs and values among East Asian cultures are rooted in its intertwined history and philosophical schools of thought. Just as there are myriad kami in Japan, various forms of kami exist in Chinese and Korean culture. Moreover, the teachings of East Asian philosophies such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism focus on how one should live life on Earth, and thus tend to have a more practical rather than otherworldly emphasis.
One key tenet of East Asian philosophy is to live in harmony with nature and all things in life. One is expected to be flexible and adaptable, and to evolve with the flow of time and nature’s forces; to resist the inevitable changes in life is perceived as impractical and at odds with nature. Thus, to an East Asian consumer, adopting new and strange technologies and incorporating them into daily life is not so different from adding a trendy pair of shoes to a wardrobe or making a trek to the newest café around the corner.