- Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life
Certain socially transformative technologies have been adopted so rapidly and universally that they have become ubiquitous and invisible. Precision portable timepieces are one example. They allowed for a revolutionary reorganization of daily life around standardized time to the point that we cannot now imagine a world without clocks and watches. How did people ever manage to meet in public without coordinated time? Japanese society is on a similar Kuhnian cusp with keitai (mobile phones)— they are still revolutionary and socially controversial, but are quickly receding into indiscernible omnipresence. There could not be a more opportune moment to study the keitai phenomenon in Japan and yet up to now there has been a noticeable gap in the literature on the topic.
Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda fill that lacuna with a groundbreaking analysis of keitai in their edited volume, Personal, Portable, and Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. The 15 chapters are unique in that with very few exceptions, the authors are all Japanese nationals based in universities in Japan. Their daily proximity to college students gives them exceptional insight into contemporary youth culture. The core essays were originally written in Japanese by a group of researchers attending a conference sponsored by the DoCoMo House design cottage at Keio University and masterfully translated into English by lead editor Mizuko Ito. The volume provides a distinctive view of not only keitai culture, but also the interpretation and analysis of public and youth culture by Japanese scholars.
The first chapters tell us that the first portable car phone was introduced in Japan in 1979. Handheld phones emerged in 1987, but the initial view of keitai up through the early 1990s was that they were something that predominantly salarymen would use, i.e., they were the fundamentally "uncool" [End Page 459] business tools of older men (p. 22). Teenagers were drawn toward alphanumeric pagers (poke-beru), which were smaller and more affordable at the time and allowed for quick and continual communication among peers. Growth of the keitai market was slow until deregulation in the mid-1990s made the phones affordable and literally "personal, portable, and pedestrian."
While the declining price and shrinking size were significant factors in keitai's rapid adoption rates among youth and women in the late 1990s, the introduction of DoCoMo's digital i-mode in 1999 was revolutionary in that it allowed for the exchange of short text messages and Internet access. As Tomoyuki Okada narrates in his history of youth culture and mobile media, texting rapidly became the predominant way that many teenagers used their keitai, rather than voice phone calls (p. 49). A direct descendant of the pokeberu pagers, keitai short messages were preferred not only because of the lower price compared to voice calls, but also because they allowed for what author Ichiyo Habuchi describes as "telecocooning" (p. 178), or the maintenance of constant contact with close intimates.
Unlike voice calls, which are publicly audible, short messages can be exchanged privately and furtively in class, on the train, or at work. As Mizuko Ito and Daisuke Okabe show, two lovers may exchange several dozen messages a day, most of which may just be "mutterings" (p. 263), but which serve the purpose of nourishing a sense of emotional connection over both time and distance. In this exchange system, a delayed response of just 15 minutes may be considered rude unless prefaced or followed by apologies for going offline to take a bath (one of the only valid excuses for not immediately returning a message).
The book shines with these intimate ethnographic explorations of how keitai are transforming Japanese society at the ground level. Demographic surveys can tell us that housewives use keitai more than personal computers, but Shingo Dobashi in chapter eleven explains that the harried nature of a housewife's daily activities means she is rarely able to dedicate a set amount of time during the day to sit in...