BROOKE GLADSTONE: One technology that has profoundly altered life for digital natives is the cell phone. Life without them is just about inconceivable, and if you think they do everything imaginable, a look towards Japan shows that they can do even more. We sent OTM producer Mark Phillips to take a look at one of the world’s most cellular nations.
MARK PHILLIPS: This is Akihabara, a neighborhood known as “Electric Town,” which for over 50 years has been the electronics capital of Tokyo, a city that’s arguably the electronics capital of the world. The neighborhood looks like a techno-nexus straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel, with huge neon signs covering pretty much every square inch of building. There are mind-blowingly loud arcades and electronics stores, big and small, stacked on top of each other, some even specializing in robots. But of all the electronic devices Japanese love, the cell phone seems to hold a special place in their hearts.
INTERPRETER FOR MOMOKO: [LAUGHS] I can’t do without my cell phone. It’s probably the next most important thing to me after life itself.
MARK PHILLIPS: This is Momoko, a young art student I met at a cozy café. And even if she’s being a little dramatic, it’s hard to overstate the importance of cell phones here. With a population of 127 million, Japan has 110 million cell phone subscriptions. Those numbers might be a little misleading though, since many have two phones. Yata Suzuki, a middle-aged journalist, has three.
YATA SUZUKI VIA INTERPRETER: Yes, we are cell phone-crazed. You can do everything with a Japanese cell phone. I can pay for my train ticket, get on a plane. I can read the news on the cell phone. I can mail using the phone. I can watch TV on the cell phone. They really do a wonderful job.
MARK PHILLIPS: While the latest models in the U.S. can do some of these things, these features in Japan have been around for years and they're used by Japanese, young and old, tech geek and ordinary businessman alike. When I visited the country in 2002, the latest fad was the camera phone. It’s now a standard feature in the U.S., of course, but way back in 2002 it seemed fantastically advanced. So can we look at cell phones in Japan as a harbinger of future mobile technology in the U.S.? Well, before we use Japan as a crystal ball, it’s worth considering why Japan is so cell phone-crazy in the first place. It’s a small country with a densely packed population, which makes it easier to build a cellular network. But it’s not just that.
PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: There’s also a difference in the way that fads and trends get disseminated among youth populations, in particular.
MARK PHILLIPS: Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist at U.C. Irvine.
PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: When you see a trend take off in children or youth culture, it tends to take off really, really rapidly.
MARK PHILLIPS: And it’s that Japanese youth culture that catalyzed the first eruption of mobile technology in the early '90s.
INTERPRETER FOR PROFESSOR OKABE: It was the first media tool, a personal kind of technology, that a young girl had ever owned herself.
MARK PHILIPS: Professor Daisuke Okabe teaches at Keio University outside of Tokyo.
INTERPRETER FOR PROFESSOR OKABE: The girls were able to decide on their own rules, manners and methods with the pagers. For example, they could decide on how they wanted to express “good night” in numbers.
MARK PHILLIPS: Good night or “oyasumi” –
[CELL PHONE TONES] - was 0833. It’s a play on the pronunciation of the numbers, and they applied their code to other crucial phrases. “I feel lonely” was 3341.
[CELLPHONE TONES] Kunikaza Amagasa is a graduate student now, but he fondly remembers those early days of mobile culture.
KUNIKAZA AMAGASA VIA INTERPRETER: When a girl gave you her pager number in school, the idea of the pager itself made your heart beat faster, in addition to the fact that she actually gave you her number. So it was exciting in two ways.
MARK PHILLIPS: Professor Daisuke Okabe.
INTERPRETER FOR PROFESSOR OKABE: These girls took the lead in creating this sort of culture. Then, companies who made these pagers developed products that actually allowed users to type the characters of the Japanese alphabet. Later, of course, that sort of function was incorporated into the cell phone, as well.
MARK PHILLIPS: And in many ways, typing remains the main function of the cell phone in Japan today.
HIROYUKI SAITO VIA INTERPRETER: I use it mostly for emails, then for Internet. It’s a cell phone but I hardly ever use it for calls.
MARK PHILLIPS: Thirty-eight-year-old Hiroyuki Saito, like most people I spoke to, prefers to communicate by email. Just take a train ride in Tokyo to see that. A crowded train like this one is perfectly silent but dozens of men and women of all ages have a thumb racing across the keypad of their cell phone. It’s considered extremely rude to talk on the phone while riding the train, but even when they're home alone many still prefer an email over talking. Businessman Saito explains.
HIRO UKI SAITO VIA INTERPRETER: It’s easier for me to say what I want on email. For example, when you need to ask them for a favor or when you’re apologizing, it’s easier to write, I'm sorry or, please, in text.
MARK PHILLIPS: It’s worth noting that these are not text messages or SMS, which only allow 160 characters. Instead, Japanese cell phone email allows 10,000 characters. In fact, the word “email” means something very different in Japan than it does elsewhere. Satoshi Tanaka of DeNA, a company that creates content and portal sites for cell phones, explains:
SATOSHI TANAKA VIA INTERPRETER: When you say email to today’s young people, they would never think of emails you do on the computer. To them, cell phone emails are emails. There are even some users who would say, oh, I didn't know you could do email on a computer, too.
MARK PHILLIPS: This brings up one of the biggest differences between U.S. and Japanese cell phone culture. While most Americans use computers to develop an intimacy with the Internet, the Japanese access the Internet primarily through the cell phone. U.C. Irvine’s Mizuko Ito:
PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: Broadband Internet came in relatively late compared to, say, the U.S., and the mobile Internet came in relatively quickly. You saw in the late '90s that people were really starting to orient towards the mobile phone as their primary portal to the Internet, and this bias still persists today.
MARK PHILLIPS: Many Japanese actually say they prefer the cell phone keypad over the computer keyboard because they can type faster on it. And perhaps, most importantly, they don't have to share their phones with anyone else. That’s why the pager fad exploded in the '90s, because it was so personal. DeNA’s Satoshi Tanaka.
SATOSHI TANAKA VIA INTERPRETER: With computers, although there may be one per household, it’s unlikely that it would be your own. With cell phones, on the other hand, it would belong to you exclusively. Thus, you have the freedom to access anything, whenever you want.
MARK PHILLIPS: This has produced two different trajectories for cell phone evolution. In the U.S. we've been upgrading our cell phones with the hope of recreating the Internet experience we've had for years on the computer. In Japan, since the cell phone has traditionally been the gateway to the Internet, the evolution has instead been in the incremental improvement of the cell phone network and hardware. But even if our cell phones are on different paths, some of Japan’s hardware features may start popping up in our phones soon.
[TRAIN STATION HUBBUB] At any Tokyo train station you'll see hundreds of people pass through the turnstiles in a given hour, and most just wave their wallet against a little sensor on the turnstile. A card in their wallet has a chip that tells the turnstile how much money they have in their transit account. Now that same chip is being built into the latest cell phone models. Fifty million phones in Japan have already been manufactured with the chip. Grad student Kunikaza Amagassa has it on his.
KUNIKAZA AMAGASSA VIA INTERPRETER: It allows me to go out without carrying anything else. I can get around on the railway and I can pay for purchases at convenience stores, since many convenience stores do it.
MARK PHILLIPS: Even a sushi bar I went to had a scanner allowing customers to pay their bill with a swipe of the cell phone. And of all the cell phone adaptations, this one seems the most likely to go global. But perhaps more than any technological advances, Professor Mizuko Ito says Japan might offer us a look at the cultural impacts of widespread cell phone use, changing the very nature of news, entertainment and games.
PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: So, for example, in the past few years you've seen the rise of the mobile phone novel as a new literary genre.
MARK PHILLIPS: In the past few years, many young Japanese women began writing serialized novels with their phones. A young housewife, who goes by Sakura-iro, stumbled across a site that hosted such stories and she started writing her own.
SAKURA-IRO VIA INTERPRETER: It’s better than writing alone on a piece of paper. I could write like I was writing an email to a friend this way.
MARK PHILLIPS: After she sent the first few chapters of her story from her phone to the website, Sakura-iro started receiving comments on her tale of heartache, bullying and love.
SAKURA-IRO VIA INTERPRETER: I received so many, and since everybody was rooting for me, I felt as if I was making this together with everybody.
MARK PHILLIPS: So she kept writing, and eventually her novel went viral, making its way to millions of cell phones. Later, a printed version of the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. To Professor Ito, it’s a natural outgrowth of a decade-old mobile phone culture.
PROFESSOR MIZUKO ITO: You’re seeing the first examples of media types that are native to the mobile Internet, and I think it’s a really interesting moment. So, in the U.S., you know, it was about ten years between the first personal home pages and the blog, where you saw a medium, a genre that was really native to Internet culture. I think we're at that moment right now in Japan with the mobile Internet.
MARK PHILLIPS: Japan offers a glimpse of a society at the edge of total cell phone ubiquity, but everyone I talked to had something of a love/hate relationship with their mobile phone. Remember Momoko, who said the only thing more important than her cell phone was life itself? As our meal continued in the café, she revised her position.
MOMOKO VIA INTERPRETER: Maybe I would be able to live without a cell phone.
MARK PHILLIPS: Her friend Yui agreed.
YUI VIA INTERPRETER: Yeah, those times when my cell phone runs out of batteries and I'm not carrying a charger, I feel that maybe I can live without my cell phone, after all.
MARK PHILLIPS: They went on to lament the relentless interconnectedness that the cell phone facilitates and almost seemed nostalgic for the pre-cell phone days they never had the pleasure of experiencing. And Yata Suzuki, the guy who had three cell phones, he’s even more critical.
YATA SUZUKI VIA INTERPRETER: Cell phones are driving people to the edge of nervous breakdowns. The reason why some people have multiple phones is that this way they can draw a line between their working life and their private life. They can use one phone for business up to, say, 6 o'clock. Then you turn that one off and you turn on another, because you want to connect to your family. Actually, the ones who don't like cell phones usually have the most.
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MARK PHILLIPS: So of all the cell phone applications that Americans will someday enjoy, there’s one old-fashioned feature that may become increasingly useful as we become increasingly connected.
[PAUSE/SILENCE] The Off button. From Tokyo, for OTM, I'm Mark Phillips.