Whether you're a devoted tech junkie or are just a dabbler in gadgets, if someone were to ask you where on Earth is the closest thing to a sci-fi reality, Japan is the place you'd probably name. Unfortunately, this has led to some outlandish myths about the land of the rising sun. While Japan is undoubtedly perceived as a technological Shangri-La, the reality is somewhat different.
We've all heard the stories about creepy robots seemingly poised to enslave humankind and the tiny mechanisms that appear to originate from an alternate universe. While every story has a basis in truth, many assumptions about Japan are urban legends easily dispelled by actually living here for more than a few weeks. We picked out the top five myths about the home of anime and manga that are more fiction than fact:
1. Weird vending machines are everywhere
Of the roughly 5.5 million vending machines in Japan (the highest density of such machines on the planet), the beverage component (including beer) generated a staggering $27 billion last year. The remaining machines dole out things like candy, food, cigarettes, tickets, and toys. But if you follow the sensational random reports from various blogs, you'd think the streets were lined with machines spitting out lady's undergarments, and various other perverse curios of Japanese arcana.
The truth is that although there are indeed vending machines that dispense such underground items, these machines are almost exclusively limited to specialized establishments that cater to, well, unique customers. You could spend a year traveling throughout Japan and never see anything more threatening in the public machines than a fattening chocolate snack.
2. Japan is the land of robots
No culture on Earth is more in love with robots than Japan. In 2008 the Japanese government appointed the '60s-era anime robotic cat Doraemon as the country's official "anime ambassador." While New York welcomes immigrants with the Statue of Liberty, Japan greets newcomers with the giant 59-foot-tall Gundam robot. And considering the neverending stream of videos of Japanese robots doing things previously only possible in sci-fi movies, it's understandable that one might believe robots are common in the country.
But they're not. As with most rich nations, you still have to go to a science park or special museum exhibit to see anything resembling a real robot. That said, Japan's system of automatic doors, stairs and trains are all accompanied by ghostly robotic voices of instruction that are gradually preparing Japanese citizens for the day when real robots will in fact become an integral part of their society.
3. Blazing Internet speed and access anywhere
Somehow this myth has really gained traction, leaving U.S. geeks feeling a misplaced sense of jealously backed by visions of their Japanese counterparts uploading and downloading data at blazing speeds. In fact, the average Japanese Web user is more likely to access the Internet via mobile phone, or some other portable device than a PC. Thus, while Japan's Internet providers have the ability to offer speedy connections, the lack of strong individual consumer demand has slowed the practical deployment and development of their broadband market when it comes to actual users accessing the Internet.
And although news reports claim that cheap 100 megabits per second broadband is common throughout the country, without naming the company, I can confirm that on a high-speed fiber connection (approximately $70 per month) I have only been able to average 4.4 megabits per second downloads and 0.75 megabits per second uploads during a U.S.-to-Japan ping test (compared to an average speed of 3.9 megabits per second speed for U.S. service providers). Bottom line: don't believe the Japan Internet speed hype. Adding insult to injury: despite the vast array of Wi-Fi devices now available, finding open access points in Japan is like looking for a white iPhone 4 — prepare for disappointment.
*net café photo by TimYang@Flickr
4. Akihabara is a "tech mecca" of rare devices
The most common first stop for the average device geek traveling to Japan is the so-called tech mecca known as Akihabara AKA "Electric Town." Sure there's lots of neon, computer stores, gaming dens, and "booth babes" on the streets in anime character and maid outfits hawking various goods and services. But if you're looking for truly rare and alien devices falling from the shelves, you're in for a disappointment. Much of the inventory is comparable to your average big-city electronics store in the U.S.
The real attractions of Akihabara are the computer components and circuits on sale for hackers and amateur roboticists. If you're a MAKE magazine fan, then yes, Akibahara is paradise. But in terms of consumer-ready devices that are both new and strange, they do exist in small quantities in Japan, but are in no way exclusive to Electric Town.
*Akihabara photo by ratamahatta@Flickr
5. Japanese Schoolgirls are tech savants
For years, Silicon Valley's tech bible Wired magazine published a feature called "Japanese Schoolgirl Watch" profiling some new trend or device being embraced by Japan's iconic schoolgirls. Presumably, the idea was that this demographic possessed some discreet, exotic insight into tech that could give a peek into the future of our own digital lives. For the average American reader, unfamiliar with real Japanese culture, the aesthetic juxtaposition resonated with a kind of sci-fi truth echoing the otherworldy feminine power of Ghost In The Shell. But the truth is far more mundane.
Although there can be no doubt that Japanese schoolgirls are heavily reliant on technology, they're not exactly tech "seers." Rather than directing Japanese market trends in any significant way, in reality they are merely the targets of domestic services and products devised by an overwhelmingly male-dominated Japanese tech workforce of software and hardware engineers. All those odd features and cute configurations that typify the devices in the hands of Japanese schoolgirls are mostly created by men who take their youth market cues more from anime and manga (also male-dominated) rather than some rigorous focus-group testing of Japanese schoolgirls. Japan has its fair share of talented and brilliant female geeks, but if you want insight into the future of Japanese tech, you'll most likely find yourself talking to some guy with a gear packed man-purse and an Internet café lifetime membership card.
*photo of AU street ad by kanjiroushi@Flickr