Japanese Government Ministry Launching Universal Free Wi-Fi Symbol

And Japan Really Needs It

All socioeconomic factors considered, relative to most of the developed world and with the occasional exception of the country’s major airports, Japan is shockingly bereft of free, publicly accessible Wi-Fi. Transplants, ex-pats, tourists, and temporary visitors alike quickly come to the realization that, despite its universally high-tech reputation around the world, on the wi-fi front Japan is at best mid-tech.

To be fair, there are some signs of progress in private business, and a number of cities have blanketed their centers with free Wi-Fi. Japan gets an A for effort in thinking it’s a good idea, but a big fat D for execution. Private businesses often require the catch-22 of first creating an account online, or their “free wifi” is not, but actually a super crappy 3rd-party pay provider. As for the free municipal networks, we’d conservatively estimate that about 50% do not work at all, and if one can connect, one will often be plodding along at 1998 dial-up speeds.

There are a lot of reasons behind this: Geography. The long-standing predominance of mobile internet. Lumbering, monolithic telecoms either oblivious to or ambivalent about the lack. Oh, and there's the fact that 98% of the humans here are Japanese non-tourists who haven’t really been clamoring for free Wi-Fi...ever.

But, there is a steady uptick in J-nationals who'd like to get their Wi-Fi on (driven in part by the death of unlimited mobile data plans), and Japan's got a gradually maturing foreign tourism industry that's both growing organically and being heavily promoted (and 1st-world tourists want Wi-Fi!). Also, Japan is probably tired of the rest of the world wondering how the hell the country that built the world's first commercial high-speed rail line less than 20 years after being utterly decimated in war hasn't been able to figure out Wi-Fi across 15 years of relative economic and technological bliss.

MLIT’s “Japan. Free Wi-Fi” Campaign Going Live April 1, 2015

In the ongoing struggle to fill the Japanese Wi-Fi gap, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s special wireless LAN task force has come up with a sign that's intended to clearly designate public establishments that offer free Wi-Fi to customers. It's simple: see the sign, get a coffee/bento/sushi/sandwich/etc., and get online. 

The task force will begin accepting applications to receive one of the designating signs in just over a month. They also plan to launch a multilingual website to assist foreign travelers with getting their Wi-Fi situation squared away. That’s right, they'll have a helpful website that’ll teach you how to get online in Japan. Sigh…that's a bit of a harbinger. Best visit that site before departing.

Let’s hope it works out. That Japanese businesses and public agencies have recognized the problem is a positive step. So to all non-residents, and even those of us who live here but could still use some free Wi-Fi from time to time, let's keep our eyes open for this, and, for a time, keep our expectations relative: