MW in Japan: Keitai Culture First Hand


Apologies for the lack of posts from me this week – thanks to Tom, however, the wheels kept rolling. I have been in Japan this week on a research trip, an opportunity that doesn't come around very often. So, while I spent most of the time doing my day job, I did get a few opportunities for walkabouts in Tokyo and Osaka, and with those a chance to see Japanese keitai culture up close. I had the chance to get a few chapters into Mimi Ito's excellent new overview of Japanese mobile culture, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a closer look at how keitai culture is evolving.

It can't be overstated that mobile communications have become part of popular culture and everyday behavior for many Japanese. With 72% penetration, most everyone between the ages of 12 and 50 has a mobile phone. As Ito points out, however, public mobile communications often takes place in a private sphere, with individuals mainly focusing on inbound or outbound text messaging, retrieving and viewing content, or less frequently speaking quietly on handsets. In four days in Tokyo and Osaka, I rarely saw anyone talking loudly on a mobile. Most of that was among older users in short conversation, punctuated by a quick "hai, hai, hai" and then a snapping shut of the handset – short, to the point conversations and then back in the pocket.

Same goes for ringtones — in a market where ringtones are a major mobile content business, chances are you won't hear one in public, at least not in large public spaces.

Handset and service choice is, of course, world leading. A visit to any operator store, or a look at any billboard or commercial running on screens in subway cars can tell you this, if you haven't already learned it from just looking at people in the street — slick, shiny, multicolored and well adorned with straps, jewels, screen protectors, graphics, and cases. Keitai culture is obviously display culture.

Functionality is also a big issue – with mobile content and mobile payments pushed heavily. Recently launched mobile payment systems Suica was present all around the Tokyo subway system, though I didn't see anyone using it yet. The IHT/Asahi Shinbun reported this week that these systems are seeing slower than expected take up. This is partly due to a lack of availability of compatible handsets driven by high operator quality standards — operators are demanding handset-based payments have a very low failure rate at the turnstiles to avoid rush-hour pile-ups as commuters enter and exit the system. Having transited Shibuya and Shinjuku several times during the week, you can see why this would be an issue — commuter crowds are enormous but fast moving.

Mobile music is a hot topic as well, with operators having the advantage of high broadband mobile penetration to be able to push music services to consumers. Lismo is one good example, recently launched by KDDI. Still, operators have stiff competition from portable MP3 players, ownership of which was very conspicuous as I walked around and rode the subway this week. In some cases, I saw teens and twentysomethings with multiple MP3 players around their necks and in pockets at the same time.

Portable gaming was very much in evidence as well, with a notable number of people playing having a Nintendo DS or PSP – notable as in several per subway car during rush hour or early evening. Advertising for the DS was also pretty widespread in the subways.

Another notable announcement this week that signals continued Japanese leadership in mobile development in the near future was the succesful test of 4G technology by DoCoMo, the mobile arm of the incumbent telco. DoCoMo achieved transmission speeds of 2.5 Ghz while moving at 12 miles an hour. While 4G rollout is not slated till the end of the decade, the signs are good for 4G development to stay on track.

One word of warning to the rest of the world: toy dogs — the real kind — seem to be a growing trend as well. Dressed in silly outfits, with jeweled collars, they seem to be a tamagotchi replacement for the twentysomething young woman. It's only a matter of time before keitai culture and the toy dog thing come together, but God knows how. I blame Paris Hilton, but maybe she got it from Japan.

Another change that happened while I was there was a move by the government to restrict second-hand sales of electronics. While merchants can register with the government to have the right to provide quality assurance to buyers that second-hand devices are safe, the move is seen as a tactic by the electronics industry, which has considerable sway with the government, to shore up its own sales of new products and many segments begin to reach saturation and new sales slow. In the short-term, the decision will pinch handset resellers in Tokyo's electronics district, Akihabara, which itself is a sight to behold for the gadget freak.

Bottom line, Japan is an exciting place to be if you are interested in the mobile technology market. Contrast with the US market are many, principal among them being the highly unimaginative US handset and services market. Japan has the advantage of a smaller, more densely packed user landscape and very string operators, but it has also seen the evolution of the mobile as central to its culture in recent years.

My three things to do for a sensory buzz on a short trip to Tokyo, in no order:

  • Visit Shibuya at sunset on a busy work day, then walk to Shinjuku and Harajuku as it gets dark. You will see a quick cross-section of Tokyo pop culture and find plenty to fill a Flickr account with visually.
  • Eat at one of Tokyo's up and coming restaurants, such as Higashi-yama. Delicate, minimal, well-balanced twists on the building blocks of Japanese cuisine gave me a chance to taste combinations of flavors (coconut cream with green tea sauce!) I wouldn't normally come across.
  • Exit Ginza station at night in the rain. You will see where Blade Runner got its aesthetic.

| February 26th, 2006 | Posted in 3G, Device Evolution, Mobile Society, Mobile Technologies, Operators |

3 Responses to “MW in Japan: Keitai Culture First Hand”

  1. Lars Says:

    Hey Scott.. If you’re still in Tokyo drop me a note. We have Mobile Monday on tonite in Harajuku at the MTV Studio Cafe would be great to hook-up!



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  3. neon Says:

    I saw teens and twentysomethings with multiple MP3 players around their necks and in pockets at the same time…

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