Cell phones have inextricably woven themselves into the lives of people around the world, but especially in Japan. For the Japanese users of mobile phones known here simply by the abbreviated moniker, "keitai" these small machines have become far more than communication tools. On the street, in trains, and even astride bicycles, masses of people are mesmerized, their eyes fixated on these little contraptions.
"I use my keitai mostly for e-mail. Most of my friends have one. Once they get a keitai, they can't stop using it," said one 17-year-old female high school student.
The number of keitai subscribers in Japan has ballooned to almost 80 million in recent years. Essentially, all but the elderly and infants carry one. On top of that, most are e-mail and Internet-capable.
These multifunctional devices are dramatically altering the lives of the Japanese, suggests Washida Yuichi, Research Director of Hakuhodo's Institute of Life and Living. People are riveted to the tiny devices because they offer new ways to exchange information, make friends and even play games.
Research at the Institute indicates that, by 2005, more than 15% of keitai users also expect to use their keitai as cameras, dictionaries, and wallets.
"Communication is a human need, not a cultural one," said Phillip Sidel, assistant professor of marketing at the International University of Japan. "Japan just has the luxury of playing with a more evolved communications network," he added.
But keitai do have a downside.
"I am always surprised to see everyone on the train young and old tapping in those personal messages. It makes me feel as if Japanese culture has broken down," said Adachi Junko, journalist for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
With digital camera and clock functions on most keitai, pundits predict keitai will eat into camera and wristwatch sales, just as money spent on phones and phone bills has already started to take away from karaoke, music and book sales.
"Technically, Japan is just really amazing. Domestic models are head and shoulders above handsets elsewhere," explains technology critic Daniel Scuka, who operates the wirelesswebjapan.com website. "These keitai are fast morphing into very sophisticated computing devices," he added.
The only certainty about keitai
, it seems, is that they will continue changing Japan as they evolve.