Have you ever noticed that when an amazing new technology appears in movies and TV shows, it usually comes from Japan, like the synthetic blood from True Blood or the ninja-assassin android from RoboCop 3? No big surprise there. Japan has made and continues to make scientific breakthroughs in real life all the time. If anyone actually invents a fake human who can bleed realistically, it will probably be them. And if you’re wondering why anyone would want something like that, then HOLD ON TO THAT INNOCENCE and never let go because once that door opens, there’s no closing it again! And if you want to know more about the origin and nature of Japan’s unique relationship with technology, here’s a good place to start …

Galápagos Cellphones

A great way to understand Japanese technology is by looking at their cellphones. Nowadays, basically everyone in Japan has a smartphone but when the iPhone was first introduced here in 2008, news of its arrival was met with one of those unimpressed Squidward memes:

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Or if you want to get technical (which, you know, would be fair in an article about technology):

Nickelodeon

The iPhone initially had very little to offer Japanese people who were more than happy with their flip-phones. For one, no place to thread the strings of a bunch of charms so you could turn your phone into the cutest Cat o' nine tails ever? That’s just a baffling lack of market research on Apple’s part.

Junglizt1210/Wikimedia Commons

No app can ever replace the tactile joy of a janitor’s keyring worth of bangles in your pocket.

Also, no way to read QR codes (that Japan invented) with the camera, no infrared for exchanging info by just getting two devices close to each other like on The Expanse, and no way to watch free TV? And how the hell were people supposed to end a call in anger on an iPhone? With a flip-phone, you could snap the thing shut like the mouth of an angry robo-gator, but on a smartphone the best you could do is clumsily finger-punch it as if you were a virgin at cyber prom. It just didn’t feel the same. But the iPhone’s initial incompatibility with Japan’s tech infrastructure and culture is also the key to understanding the latter.

There is a term called “Galápagos Syndrome” that describes Japan’s isolated, unique take on global products. The name refers to the singular life that developed on the Galápagos Islands because of their remote location. This was the discovery that helped Charles Darwin better understand the process of evolution, during which stuff gets a bit weird when you leave it alone long enough. Although, any parent with teenage kids could probably have told Darwin that. In tech terms, Japan’s Galápagos Syndrome amounted to the islands ignoring international standards and doing their own thing, which is how they developed their “gara-kei” (“Galápagos cellphones.”)

NTT DoCoMo

Ask your parents if you’re still unclear how this was ever cool.

These flip-phones are still around (and look kickass) but are mostly considered old-fashioned and uncool, having long been supplanted by smartphones, now adapted to local needs. But back in the day, Galápagos phones were magic. With gara-kei, users had access to an internet service called i-mode since 1999, which created a massive market for mobile online shopping and gaming back when Western cells could barely handle Snake and still had thick antennas that doubled as emergency kubotans.

POM POM/Shutterstock

Back when you could run over your phone with a car and the only damage would be to your tire.

A few years later in 2004, Japan also developed a cellphone wallet that could link with your bank or credit card, allowing you to use your phone for contactless payments. Domestic Japanese e-wallets are still around and very popular, though they are being slowly overtaken by Google and Apple products, despite the latter only being developed in 2011 and 2014, respectively. So it would seem that by paying no mind to global tech standards, Japan manages to create Star Trek-level tech decades before the West. Unfortunately, the price for that is higher than just some weird-looking phone chargers…

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Insular Progress Is a Double-Edged Sword

Like the history of the islands it was named after, Galápagos Syndrome also has its less-than-awesome side (Did you know Darwin not only studied the Galápagos giant tortoises but also ate them like groceries and even consumed “their bladder contents” as NPR put it? Come on, we’re all adults here. You can say “Darwin drank TMNT Diaper-Juice.”)

When Japan started developing its own tech for the Japanese market with Japanese customers in mind first, they initially had a bunch of global successes like with QR codes, the Walkman, or the Discman. Other Japanese ideas, though, didn’t catch on despite having a lot going for them like FeliCa. Short for “Felicity Card,” it’s a method of contactless payment developed by Sony back in the 1990s that today forms the backbone of Japan’s so-called IC Cards, which you can charge with physical money and use for cashless purchases pretty much everywhere, from train stations to vending machines.

Einokapihateinend/Wikimedia Commons

Convenient until you lean against a vending machine with it in your pocket and buy 30 Mountain Dews.

And foreign companies were very interested in this. But instead of IC Cards, they said “Bye FeliCa” and went in hard on NFC (Near-Field Communication), which is similar to the IC technology but juuuuust different enough for the two systems to not be fully compatible. And since NFC is the protocol of choice for cashless payment systems in the West, Japanese IC Cards are useless abroad while stuff like Apple Pay had to be tweaked extensively to work over here. And Japan seems to have taken that a bit personally, almost as if someone told them that they wished they could find someone like them. Just, you know, not actually them.

Combined with other factors, this made Japan double-down on ignoring global compatibility and adopting an attitude of “That sounds like a You problem.” That’s the other edge of the Galápagos Syndrome sword: a kind of stubbornness, shutting yourself off, and essentially just abandoning the world. The weird thing, though, is that Japan really does want to dominate global markets but apparently only by digging in and waiting for the rest of the world to blink.

Because of this, for years, getting money from foreign accounts in Japan was as fun as Darwin’s dinner parties. Even if you could find an ATM that took foreign cards, it might as well have had a built-in knife-arm that reached out and cut out a pound of your flesh for how much it charged in transaction fees. THIS HAS THANKFULLY BEEN FIXED NOW but it took way too long to get here. And this Galápago attitude of “our way or the highway” doesn’t just apply to tech. For years now, professionals have been raising the alarm about Galápagos Syndrome making anime less exportable all while South Korea began besting Japan in the realm of TV, even in the “survival game” genre that Japan basically invented.

Hiroshi Mikitani, one of Japan’s richest men, has been talking about fighting this for over a decade. But he’s up against some powerful forces.

Japan’s Curious Tech Is the Product of History, Culture, and Demographics

Japan got so good at Galápago-ing inside its shell to do some secluded, avantgarde science because they first mastered the art of physical isolation. They once actually locked down the entire country for more than two centuries and cut off ties with most of the world. Now, I don’t want to say this was kinda caused by Christians and all the slavery that they did in Japan in the late 16th century… because that would be the truth, and I think lies are much more fun. So let’s say that Japan closed its borders because… a UFO washed up on its shores. Wait, no, that also really happened. Uuum… can we blame Russian werebear attacks?

Anyway, for most of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) Japan had extremely limited contact with the outside world and used that time to look within and came up with a bunch of original, never-before-seen things. Like tentacle porn. Hey, like I said, stuff gets a bit weird when you leave it alone long enough.

On the technological front, this was when Japan invented an ingenious way to efficiently mass-produce nitrate using an early form of biotechnology. And, GOOD DOG, have you seen their wadokei clocks? Back then, time was measured by dividing daylight into six equal parts but days were longer in the summer so Japan came up with a way to adjust their mechanical clocks to account for that and it looked so pretty.

Once Japan’s isolationist policy ended (despite the very best efforts of The Viper, the Cologne Samurai, and Heaven’s Punisher) Japan started an on-and-off relationship with outside influences, which today is half the reason why the country has such an original technological flavor. The other half is old people.

Seniors make up about 30% of Japan’s population, more than anywhere else in the world. That’s alright, though, because the country actually takes care of its meemaws and meepaws. Nobody is saying that the US is turning their seniors into fertilizer to grow potatoes for French fries but… I’m gonna be real with you, America. We all kind of suspect that you’ve thought about it. In contrast, getting old in Japan isn’t too bad because a lot of stuff is made especially for you. Like the high-tech toilets. We’ve had this conversation time and time again, and we’ve hopefully settled it with Deadpool 2.

Getting poop off you with just dry toilet paper is super gross (though maybe not as bad as some of the toilet paper alternatives from history). Wet wipes are a good start but a butt-shower is just so much better, and that’s what you get with Japan’s ubiquitous Washlet toilets. But(t) that’s just the beginning. Shy pooper? There is a button on a lot of Japanese toilets that plays sounds of running water or white noise to make sure nobody can hear that you’re using the poop chair to, ugh, poop. Like a weirdo. Plus, you also have drying functions and alarms in case you need help, and all those functions are there primarily for seniors to whom wiping might be difficult. Shower toilets give them back their independence and dignity. By water-blasting their bungholes.

Really, so much of Japanese tech is there for the seniors. Omnipresent escalators, even ones that only take you 3 feet up? There because older people may have trouble walking up stairs. Simple cashless payments with IC Cards? Easier than entering your banking info into your phone or fumbling around for change. The amazing, on-time public transport (for which seniors get substantial discounts)? Better than driving once you hit 70. Then again, helping seniors is sometimes done not by making things easier via science-fiction but by artificially keeping them difficult yet familiar. Which is why I still have to fax one of my monthly invoices. And that’s why…

Living With Japanese Tech Sometimes Feels Like Being in a Parallel Dimension

Hey, remember Sliders or any other show/movie where people travel to another universe that’s similar to their own but with small differences like traffic lights being different colors or socks being called “foot condoms” or something? Those are tiny things that shouldn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things but which would still give you weird uncanny valley vibes. That’s how living in Japan can first feel like.

Did you know that Yahoo used to be bigger than Google in Japan? Still feels so weird to say it. Like the mental equivalent of sleeping in wet foot condoms. The reason why you’ve never spotted a Japanese person online going "Hold up, let me Yahoo that real quick” is because the company didn’t win the country over with its search engine. Yahoo Japan is so successful because they put all their energy into a bunch of hyper-localized, Japan-only services (including domestic weather forecasts, question-and-answer sites, and many more), which still remain massively popular among millions of Japanese users.

And you know what? Congratulations on that. They created successful products out of a brand that most people in the West could swear died like a decade ago in a bizarre Motel 6 murder-suicide involving a donkey, a wetsuit, and a tub of mayo. But every time you see how widespread Yahoo still is in Japan, your first instinct is to assume you accidentally traveled back in time last weekend, tried to kill Hitler, and messed history up. Maybe mixing Red Bull, vodka, and turtle pee does send you back in time and gives you amnesia…

Oh, and Japanese Facebook? Weirdly not full of your ranting, estranged relatives giving you daily reminders of why they’re no longer invited to Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, FB is Japan’s #1 business networking platform, but when it first arrived here, it barely held on for a really long time because for a hot minute everyone’s go-to social networking site was mixi. It’s still around but it’s been left alone for so long that, yeah, it’s probably best if we don’t check how weird it’s gotten.

So, OK, Japanese Facebook was once getting pommeled by something called mixi and today isn’t as toxic as an abandoned porta-potty in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. Weird but OK. Hitler was probably not involved. But FB is also only half as big as something called LINE, which is like if WhatsApp, Uber, Discord, and a bunch of other services morphed into the most popular Japanese app ever that you never even heard of? That’s just… Huh?

Look, obviously it’s good that Japan hasn’t been totally dominated by American tech because I was serious before about worrying that you guys will one day start mulching your elders. And you obviously get used to this parallel-dimension technoscape pretty quickly. But in the beginning, interacting with Japan’s tech can feel like getting spaghetti at McDonald’s. There’s no reason why it couldn’t/shouldn’t exist and it might be delicious, but while you’re enjoying it, a part of you will keep wondering: Did you always have that scar on your arm or did it come from a German military-issue knife…

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Top image: Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

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