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World's Most Functional Instrument

The Japanese Keitai Mobile Phones—and Their Still-Evolving Culture


Emoticons created by combining letters and punctuation creatively to represent facial expressions portraying various emotions


"Deco mail" are email messages decorated with illustrations and animated pictures that can help show your affection for your friends.

The number of mobile phone contracts in Japan surpasses 127 million, with more than 80% of Japan’s population of 128 million now owning one or more mobile phones. By skillfully and artfully using various advanced features built on cutting-edge technologies, Japanese people have created a rather unique culture out of these high-end, full-of-functions phones.

Keitai Email Changes CommunicationIn 1999, Japanese manufacturers successfully integrated email capability and Internet browsing into compact mobile phone models, making Japan the first country in the world to introduce Internet service specifically for mobile phones. Usually referred to as keitai (literally "mobile" in Japanese), these high-end feature phones revolutionized the way most Japanese, young and old, male and female, communicate. In Japan, the keitai phone is used more often to send and receive email than for telephone conversations. In fact, nowadays, the first step in striking up a friendship is to exchange email addresses. Since mobile phone email and Internet access have become the norm, it is commonplace to see people on trains or street corners staring intently at their phone screens as they read and write emails. Mobile phone email is now an essential component of friendship, and recent figures indicate that approximately 50% of junior high school students and more than 90% of high school students have a mobile phone.

The popularity of mobile phone email in Japan has fostered the country's unique culture of pictographs. Whether typographical emoticons or picture icons, pictographs are used to thoughtfully and humorously express the tone and emotion that text alone cannot fully convey. Pictographs are particularly popular with women and now come in a wide range of styles. Some are the simple text-based emoticons combining punctuation and letters, while others are rendered as illustrations and animated characters called deco mail.

A New Literary Genre—the Mobile Phone NovelWith the spread of the mobile phone came a new literary genre in Japan, the "mobile phone novel." Actually written on mobile phones, these novels are characterized by the rhythmical sentences that come from the limited number of letters that can fit easily on a phone's small screen, as well as by a realism that comes from the use of common expressions used by young people. With a total of more than 12 million "hits," the mobile phone novel "Koizora" [Love Sky] generated unbelievable popularity, particularly among young women. Unlike a conventional e-book, the novel was first published in digital format and was later republished as a book, which sold two million copies and became a best seller. The movie made from the novel was also a huge hit.

Mobile phones today come with cameras that take high-resolution photos and high-definition movies, transforming many Japanese into amateur photographers. Carrying a mobile phone that also functions as a high-performance camera means no perfect photo opportunity is ever missed. Photos can be sent to friends and family or posted on blogs as soon as they're taken. People on the street now take timelier, more "on-the-spot" photos than even professional photographers, and in not a few cases, mobile phone photos have been picked up by major media outlets for publication.

A Whole Bunch of Features That Make Keitai an Essential Instrument for Modern Lifestyles


Various keitai functions such as high-resolution photography (left) and infrared data transmission (right) make it truly a part of everyday life.

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Viewing a TV program with the keitai "One-Seg" function

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The keitai electronic wallet feature makes it easy to pay train fare without the hassle of buying tickets.

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Turn the latest hit song into your ringtone. Download music and listen at your leisure. Play games. Watch TV broadcasts using "One-Seg." Use infrared data transmission to exchange telephone numbers and email addresses. These functions are already commonplace. But there's still a bunch more of fantastic functions available on Japanese keitai phones.

Examples are many but include: various games such as motion-sensing, multiplayer mobile games, where you shake the mobile phone or perform various body actions while playing with your friends; electronic money functions, which let you pay your train or bus fare or shop at convenience stores simply by placing your phone on a sensor device; pedometers that help you say fit; GPS applications to provide real-time weather info if rain is expected at your current location or let you locate your child's current whereabouts; built-in audio support functions that can control vocal timing, making hard-to-hear speeches more audible…. With so many features designed for users of all ages, mobile phones have truly become an integral part of Japanese people's everyday life.

Especially for young people, for whom the mobile phone is now second nature, the Japanese keitai is invaluable—more so than even their wallet or schedule book. And naturally they take devoted care in selecting a mobile phone and its design, and they often customize their keitai, decorating it with rhinestones or other decorative artwork, or adding distinctive straps to turn them into their own unique phone.


Customize keitai phones personally with rhinestones or other decorative artwork and add your favorite strap.(Photo: AFLO)

The Keitai Merges with SmartphonesRecently, there has been a sharp rise in the sales of smartphones in the Japanese market, with new models released one after another. Smartphones made by Japanese companies have recently been launched and are equipped with electronic wallet functions, "One-Seg" TV viewing, and other capabilities that have long been main features of Japanese keitai. In a surprising twist, certain smartphone models known for their touchscreen designs have actually had physical keypads added to accommodate Japanese youth, who are so accustomed to inputting text on their keitai keypads. In this and other ways, smartphones have developed an interesting fusion for use in the Japanese market.

As one of the world's forerunners in the mobile phone industry, Japan has developed advanced mobile phone technology and features that are just now beginning to appear in other advanced nations. Indeed, the world's smartphones now seem to be emulating the "coolness" of Japanese keitai culture.

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Some touchscreen smartphone models even come with physical keypads. It is easy to select a pictograph to decorate email messages. (Cooperation: KDDI Corporation)

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(November 2011)

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