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Japanese mobile phone culture

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Title: Japanese mobile phone culture  
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Japanese mobile phone culture

A young girl taking photos with her phone at the Osaka Aquarium

In Japan, mobile phones have become ubiquitous. In Japanese, mobile phones are called keitai denwa (携帯電話), literally "portable telephones," and are often known simply as keitai.

Much of the Japanese population own cellular phones, most of which are equipped with enhancements such as video and camera capabilities. As of May 2008, 31.3% of elementary school students, and 57.6% of middle school students own a cell phone, with many of them accessing the internet through them.[1] This pervasiveness and the particularities of their usage lead to the development of a mobile phone culture, or "keitai culture."


  • Features 1
  • Market 2
    • 2013 2.1
  • In use 3
  • Gyaru-moji 4
  • Cell phone novels 5
  • Mobile gaming 6
  • Decoration 7
  • Teenagers and mobile phones 8
  • Forefront of consumer technology 9
  • Negative aspects 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • Further reading 13
  • External links 14


A Japanese flip style cellular phone.

Japan was leading in mobile phone technology. The first camera phone J-Phone (Stylized as 写メール, which stands for Photo-Mail) started marketing during November 2000, and not only included a camera but also the function to send photo via messaging or E-mail, which made the phone extremely popular at the time. Technologies like 3G Mobile Broadband are also marketed in Japan before any other country.

Following are the main features of a mobile in Japan:

  • E-mail
  • Configurable Databases
  • Phone and address books
  • Alarm clocks and stopwatches
  • Live Video feed via Piconet
  • Mobile games, such as role-playing games like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy series
  • Daytimers
  • Varying degrees of image enhancement capabilities, such as the option to create borders, to create animations, and more.
  • Instant messengers
  • Calculator, calendar, schedule note and memo pad
  • Playback of downloaded music
  • Recording and playback of voices, music, images and pictures
  • Portable music player (MP3 player etc.)
  • Portable video player (MP4 player etc.)
  • Viewing online Flash video (YouTube, Nico Nico Douga etc.)
  • Video calling
  • Navigation by GPS
  • Viewing and listening to TV (1seg) and radio (FM/AM)
  • Viewing video on demand contents (use packet data transfer for video streaming to watch, contents available from video on demand service provider, contents available with pay per contents/limited period etc.) (for watching, use the cell phone's video viewer or download and use contents provider's video viewer application for cell phone.)
  • TV phone
  • Crime prevention buzzer (with automatic reporting system to the police)
  • Pedometer
  • 'Read aloud' system
  • Touch-pad system
  • A fingerprint/face recognition system for the protection of personal data
  • Mobile centrex service with wireless LAN

In recent years, some cellular phones even have the capability of being used as debit or credit cards and can be swiped through most checkout lines to buy products as varied as mascara and jet planes, as more and more companies offer catalogs for cell phones. These functionalities include:

  • E-money service and various certification functions through Untouched IC card (FeliCa etc.)
  • Various services with NTT DoCoMo’s ‘Osaifu-Keitai (mobile phone with wallet function)’
  • E-money service e.g. ‘Edy
  • Function as ‘Mobile Suica,’ which can be used for a season ticket and a train ticket
  • Cmode: vending machines which can be used with QR Code and ‘Osaifu-Keitai’ of a mobile phone
  • I concierge : NTT DoCoMo's service. (Teaching information about traffic,food,shopping etc.)by GPS

Some newer models allow the user to watch movies and/or television. Most phones can be connected to the Internet through services such as i-mode. Japan was also the first to launch 3G services on a large scale. Users can browse text-only Internet sites, and many Japanese sites have sub-sites designed especially for cellular phone users. One of the most popular services allows users to check train schedules and plan trips on public transit.

Some mobile phones are waterproof, even in the high-specifications segment.

The wide variety of features, many original to or limited to Japan, lead to the term "Galápagos syndrome", as these resulting phones were dominant in the island nation of Japan, but unsuccessful abroad. This has since led to the term Gala-phone (ガラケイ gara-kei) to refer to Japanese feature phones, by contrast with newer smart phones.



As of 2013, the Japanese mobile phone market is broadly divided into a high-end, consisting of smart phones (スマートフォン (sumātofon), abbreviated as スマフォ (sumafo) or スマホ (sumaho)), mid-range, consisting of feature phones (garakei), and a low-end, consisting of Personal Handy-phone System (PHS, handy phone (ハンディフォン handifon) or picchi (ピッチ), from PHS (ピーエッチエス pīecchiesu)). There is some overlap of market segments between low-end smart phones and high-end feature phones, and many shared features. PHS, which was initially developed as a cheaper alternative to 2G networks such as CDMA and GSM, was initially deployed in 1995, but is now only offered by one carrier, Willcom (owned by Softbank). As elsewhere in the world, smart phones have been growing extremely quickly.

In use

The (vocal) use of mobile phones on public transport is frowned upon, and messages asking passengers not to make calls and to switch their phones to silent mode ("public mode" or "manner mode" in Japanese) are played frequently. This, combined with the low per-message price, ample allowed length per message (10,000 characters per message) the ability to enhance messages with special characters, emoticons, pictures use their original meaning by relying more on the information based on the shape each character has. For example, '\' may be attached at the end of a sentence to show that they are not happy about the event described. A sentence like "I have a test today\" (translated) might mean that he or she didn't study enough, or that the test itself is depressing. Some of these usages disappeared as suitable icons were made but these newly made icons also acquired a usage not originally intended. Another example deals with the astrological symbol for Libra (♎). It resembles a cooked and puffed mochi, and is sometimes used in a happy new year's message as mochi are often eaten then. The symbol for Aquarius (♒) resembles waves, so this would be used to mean 'sea'. The number of icons gradually increased and they are now coloured on most cell phones, to make them more distinct. ASCII art is also used widely and many of them are faces with expression. (see also Shift JIS art)


One very distinct form of writing is called 'gyaru-moji ('gal characters' named after the fashion style 'gyaru' or 'gal' because the people of this fashion style are the ones who often use this kind of lettering). For example lt wouldn't correspond to the Latin characters 'L' and 't' but instead it would correspond to the hiragana, け ('ke'). Notice that it looks very similar when written. Many hiragana, katakana and kanji are taken apart and reassembled using different characters including alphabet characters. It is unclear why this usage is now seen. Some believe that this started as a way of making secret messages that a quick peek wouldn't reveal, while others claim that it was just for fun. This can be related to the way the English language hacking culture uses 1337 language to hide the meaning of the words typed. It is also possibly due to different character limits when different languages are used, e.g. 160 Latin characters and 70 Unicode (inc. kanji). By splitting the characters into alpha-numeric characters, it extends the possible over-all length of the message.

Cell phone novels

Mobile phone novels are popular with the same audience.

Mobile gaming

In the early 2000s, mobile games had gained mainstream popularity in Japan, years before the United States and Europe. By 2003, a wide variety of mobile games were available on Japanese phones, ranging from puzzle games and virtual pet titles that utilize camera phone technology to 3D games with PlayStation-quality graphics. Older arcade-style games became particularly popular on mobile phones, which were an ideal platform for arcade-style games designed for shorter play sessions.[2]

The graphics were getting better as handsets were becoming more powerful, as demonstrated by the mobile version of Ridge Racer in 2003, though such titles cost twice as much as other mobile games. It was published by Namco, one of the most successful mobile game publishers at the time. That same year, Namco also released a fighting game that uses camera phone technology to create a player character based on the player's profile, and interprets the image to determine the character's speed and power; the character can then be sent to a friend's mobile to battle. Namco began making attempts to introduce mobile gaming culture to Europe in 2003.[2]

Other mobile games released in 2003 included a Tamagotchi-like virtual pet game by Panasonic where the pet is fed by photos of foods taken with a camera phone. Another virtual pet game utilized a fingerprint scanner built into a handset to interact with a pet. Another mobile game that year was an educational game that utilized a mobile's microphone to help children with their pronunciation skills.[2]

In the present day, Japan is the world's largest market for mobile games.[3] The Japanese market today is becoming increasingly dominated by mobile games, which generated $5.1 billion in 2013, more than traditional console games in the country.[4]


Japanese cell phones are often decorated, as in this example

Phone decorations are common, notably mobile phone charms and various stickers. The stickers are often in the maki-e style, and are advertised as such.

Teenagers and mobile phones

Paging devices used in the late 1980s to early 1990s predate mobile phones and paved the way for the popularity of the phones among teenagers. Pagers could only display numbers and were intended to alert the owner that they had received a call from a certain phone number, but teens quickly began using numeric messages to communicate many things, including greetings and everyday emotions. Most were based on various ways numbers could be read in Japanese. Examples are

  • 4-6-4-9 – yo-ro-shi-ku ("hello," "best regards")
  • 3-3-4-1 – sa-mi-shi-i ("I feel lonely")
  • 8-8-9-1-9 – ha-ya-ku-i-ku ("hurry up, let's go")

With the rapidly falling prices of cell phones in the mid 1990s, young people began experimenting with the short message service that the mobile phone companies started offering. When the i-mode service became available, the mobile phone culture began flourishing in earnest as this service offered an E-mail application. Magazines and television regularly make specials focusing on the current trend of how mobile phones are used by young people.

Forefront of consumer technology

There is a popular trend in Japan to use the mobile phone handset to read information from special barcodes. The current technology is based on 'QR codes' which are a form of 2D barcode that is written out in a square shape instead of a bar shape. The phone handset can scan the barcode using its camera or other input, decode the information, and then take actions based on the type of content. The most popular usage of these QR codes is in advertising. All over Japan there are posters with the codes on and they are found extensively in magazines and even on some people’s business cards. The QR code usually has links to a web site address or email address that the phone can access, or it might contain address and telephone numbers.

Sony, working with NTT DoCoMo, has been spearheading the mobile phone wallet technology, commonly known as 'FeliCa'. This technology makes use of an RFID chip inside the handset that can communicate with reading devices when the phone is placed near them. Though the technology is relatively new, there are many locations such as convenience stores which allow users to pay for goods using their phones; some vending machines even accept phone payments. Users must 'charge up' their accounts with credits before they can pay using their phones. The growing popularity of the system is compelling other manufacturers to make compatible phones.

The Ubiquitous Business Department of NTT DoCoMo is developing the technology for a mobile phone to be the purchase system for virtual shops and smart shops, an authentication system in the medical field, and the purchase point for street poster advertisements.[5]

Gracenote and Media Socket have a service where the user holds the phone up to a source of music (such as a speaker), and, by dialing a certain phone number, the song is found in a database and identified. The user receives the song's title, artist, and album within seconds. This information can in turn be used to search the mobile internet to find that song. Many of these technologies are now common place throughout the world thanks to the rise of smartphones, such as Android and iOS devices.

Negative aspects

It is considered a violation of good etiquette to answer a cell phone in certain public places. For example, on trains it is rude to answer or talk on cellphones. Many people keep their phone in 'manner mode' in order not to be annoying to others and to avoid embarrassment on trains. On the other hand, writing emails or playing games with a cell phone while on the train is completely acceptable.

Electromagnetic energy is theorized to cause interference with heart pacemakers and other medical devices.[6][7] Most trains contain signs demanding that mobile phones be turned off when around seats reserved for the elderly and handicapped, but passengers rarely do so. In hospitals, it is expected that one should turn it off entirely.

Both talking on the phone or texting/messaging while operating a vehicle or riding a bicycle are prohibited, but nevertheless remain fairly common.

See also


  1. ^ <教育再生懇談会>小・中学生の携帯使用を制限 報告に盛る (in Japanese). 17 May 2008. Retrieved 17 May 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c Hermida, Alfred (28 August 2003). "Japan leads mobile game craze". BBC News. Retrieved 22 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Mayumi Negishi (11 December 2013). "Japan Tops World In Mobile Apps Revenue". WSJ. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  4. ^ "Japanese console market down as mobile gaming takes over". MCV UK. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  5. ^ Friedman, Thomas (2006). The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. pp. 197–199.  
  6. ^ Jay P. Thaker, Mehul B. Patel, MD, Krit Jongnarangsin, MD,* Valdis V. Liepa, PhD, † Ranjan K. Thakur, MD, FHR. "Electromagnetic interference with pacemakers caused by portable media players" (PDF). Jay Thaker. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  7. ^ "Cellular Phones Can Cause Pacemaker Problems". 1997-12-31. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 

Further reading

  • "Cell phone culture here unlike any other". The Japan Times. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  • "Fashion, function meet in Japan cell-phone culture". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  • Naomi Canton for CNN (27 September 2012). "Cell phone culture: How cultural differences affect mobile use". CNN. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  • Palash Ghosh (25 September 2012). "Dire Threat To Culture? - Mobile Phones, Email Destroying Penmanship". International Business Times. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  • Mayumi Negishi (11 December 2013). "Japan Tops World In Mobile Apps Revenue". WSJ. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  • "Japanese Cybercultures". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 

External links

  • "Mobile Phones, Japanese Youth, and the Re-Placement of Social Contact" by Mizuko Ito
  • "Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life"(2005) edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe and Misa Matsuda. Click here for a pdf of a draft of the introduction.
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