Japan’s newly appointed digital minister is waging war on floppy disks. Companies fear the fax machine could be next

September 5, 2022, 11:37 AM UTC
Floppy Disk
Japan's digital minister Taro Kono has declared war on the floppy disk.
Getty Images

From the outside, Japan, the third largest economy in the world after the U.S. and China, is seen as one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world. Inside the country, its government and businesses are still using floppy disks.

But this will likely soon come to an end as Taro Kono—the social-media-savvy prime ministerial hopeful who was appointed digital minister in last month’s cabinet reshuffle—has declared war on the disk storage that’s only continued relevance in most of the West is limited to the use off its digital image as a save icon.

According to Kono, about 1,900 government procedures still require the business community to use floppy discs to submit applications and other forms. A standard 3.5-inch floppy disk can usually hold around 1.44MB of storage, or around 10 seconds of a 480p video.

With the arrival of the Internet and the existence of cloud storage, Kono is trying to retire the 40-year-old technology, which continues to be used in Japan due to the country’s strict regulations around how data can be transferred within the government bureaucracy.

The Japanese “Digital Agency is to change those regulations so you can use online,” Kono tweeted.

At a news conference last week, Kono also criticized the country’s lingering use of other outdated technology. “I’m looking to get rid of the fax machine, and I still plan to do that,” he said.

Tortoise-pace change

The urgency to replace the floppy disk and the fax machine comes as Japan drives to establish a digital national ID system, which citizens could use to electronically sign online tax submissions, apply online for other government services, and use for online banking logins and transaction signing.

Kono has argued on his blog that a digital ID system is needed as municipalities faced difficulty in distributing emergency benefits to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic; citizens were required to attach a copy of their passport and bank account information to receive benefits.

Japan’s stubborn reliance on the fax machine during the COVID-19 pandemic was criticized by doctors who had to complete paperwork on each new coronavirus infections by hand. One doctor went on a Twitter tirade and called the practice “Showa period stuff”, referring to the imperial era that ran from 1926 until the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989.

Kono has also argued that Japan’s reliance on the fax machine and the centuries-old practice of stamping one’s name with a hanko stamp seal has been a “hindrance to telework” policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During stay-at-home orders in April 2020, workers were still commuting to the office to physically stamp contracts and papers with custom hanko seals.

Kono’s greatest challenge in overhauling the Japanese technological system will likely be its aging population. Japan has the world’s oldest society, with 28.7 % of the population 65 or older. The population has more than 80,000 people over the age of 100 on top of a rapidly declining birth rate, according to a 2020 report by the European Parliament.

Japan’s cyber-security minister Yoshitaka Sakurada admitted in 2018 when he was appointed to the role that he has never used a computer. And when most of the West shrugged after Microsoft announced it would discontinue Internet Explorer, Japan panicked; around 49% of companies in Japan were still using the browser as of March 2022.

The floppy disk

Kono asked a press conference last Tuesday “where does one even buy a floppy disk these days?”

The question is valid as there is virtually no company that still manufacturs them. One of the largest floppy disk makers, Sony, ended its production of floppy discs more than a decade ago, in 2010.

No computer manufactured today has a port to input a floppy disk and according to a report from YouGov, two-thirds of children in the U.K. below the age of 18 don’t even know what a floppy disk is.

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