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Faxes, mascots, and manga: Science communication in Japan

9 February 2021

Research institutions combine tradition and whimsy to disseminate science news and information to the public.

Tsukuba, Japan.
Tsukuba, Japan, located about an hour northeast of Tokyo, hosts science facilities including the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, or KEK. Credit: On-chan, CC BY-SA 3.0

Amid the global cacophony of Zoom calls and Slack notifications, the soundscape of science communication in Japan has a distinctly vintage ring: the dialing in of a fax machine. Faxing is the most common way that universities in Japan distribute their research news, according to a recent study in the journal Public Understanding of Science, with 63% of the nearly 200 institutions surveyed sending press releases by fax. Email comes in a distant third, behind printed press releases—actual paper copies circulated to pigeonholes.

If those anachronistic approaches seem surprising for a country popularly associated with cutting-edge tech, there’s a reason they persist. Traditional delivery mechanisms like faxes are part of a system that caters to domestic media and often results in Japanese science news never breaking abroad. The country’s unique approach to science communication also includes a plethora of costumed characters and comics that portray scientists as champions and make research accessible and playful.

A major factor that dictates Japan’s science communication process is the press club, a network through which most news in the country, scientific or otherwise, gets filtered. The clubs are in cities and towns scattered across the country and located centrally at various government ministries in Tokyo. Most of them require universities to send press releases by fax. To avoid inundating the press clubs, universities will cooperate to deliver a single, unified press release for a collaborative study, rather than issuing multiple competing news items. The courtesies even extend to university staff hand-delivering printed versions of releases to press clubs. “It’s surprising, but there’s an element of ritual and politeness,” says Ayumi Koso, a researcher and press officer at the National Institutes for the Humanities who authored the Public Understanding of Science study.

Accompanying the fax and formality in Japanese science communication is a sense of whimsy, particularly in the form of mascots. Captain Hookun, an owl astronaut reminiscent of R2-D2, represents Tsukuba, Japan’s “science city.” Higgs-kun, a ghostlike blue avatar of the boson, promotes the proposed International Linear Collider (ILC) in its planned home, Japan’s northern Iwate Prefecture. Hookun and Higgs-kun appear as electronic stickers in the popular messaging app LINE, and people dressed in life-size costumes regularly visit schools and events. (ILC communicator Rika Takahashi reports that “Higgs-kun is now very tired—and actually stinks—so it’s resting in a warehouse.”) Manga, popular with both adults and kids, also embrace scientific topics. The latest series of the long-running manga Kosaku Shima sees the titular businessman involved in the ILC’s development. And the 2004 discovery of nihonium by Japanese scientists at RIKEN is depicted in a manga aptly named with the atomic number 113.

In the Twitter-verse, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) delivers an anthropomorphized take on its Hayabusa2 asteroid-exploring spacecraft with the @haya2kun account. “Normally, Haya2kun tweets in Japanese, though we have used the account to hold a ‘conversation’ [in English] with the MASCOT lander that was on board Hayabusa2,” says Elizabeth Tasker, an associate professor at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

Haya2kun, an anthropomorphized take on the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, is active on Twitter. Credit: JAXA

Tasker is heavily involved in translation for JAXA’s outreach, and she says conveying background cultural knowledge can be a challenge when Japanese is rendered into English. “One example is that the asteroid visited by Hayabusa2 is named Ryugu, a name that originates from the Japanese folktale of Urashima Taro, [which] is not widely known outside Japan,” Tasker explains. “The same problem occurs when we show a photograph of the control room mascot. It’s a giant oarfish, which seems completely random unless you know that the Japanese for oarfish is ryugu-no-tsukai.”

Niche cultural references, a digital divide in press operations, and idiosyncratic approaches can impede international awareness of research from Japan. Tasker makes a distinction between science communication from Japan and within Japan; Koso agrees that there is a disconnect, with the practices and motivations for outreach diverging for international and domestic audiences. The influence of press clubs contributes to a “homogenization of news stories,” says Koso. Domestically, satisfying the expectations of established media and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, the largest research funder, is paramount, whereas international appetites are more diverse, craving storytelling and social media rather than dry releases.

And a language barrier persists. “Many Japanese journalists and researchers don’t speak English, and it’s increasingly a problem for remaining competitive,” says Neil Calder, who has directed communications and press for CERN, SLAC, ITER, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. “There is little drive for Japanese institutions to explain what they are doing, and few universities are capable of producing outputs for the international press. Japan is invisible to the world’s science writers. They don’t get stories from Japan, but they would love to.”

Over the past year, circumstances have accelerated Japanese research organizations’ tentative moves toward globalization. “The coronavirus pandemic has pushed them to finally make use of digital tools—for example, organizing online press conferences, which used to be unheard of,” says Koso. And if Japanese science communication is adopting some international practices, the transfer could work in the opposite direction, too: “The systematic way of doing press work and the cooperative mind-set are positive aspects” that institutions in other countries could learn from, she says.

Something unlikely to make a comeback elsewhere, though, is the fax machine. Says Calder: “I hadn’t used [one] for years prior to coming to Japan!”

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