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Cellular Phone Etiquette Becomes a Major Issue

July 5, 2000
This handy tool can also cause trouble in crowded locations.

The use of cellular phones in Japan has been widespread since around 1994. It was not until February 1999, however, when NTT DoCoMo introduced its i-mode Internet service for cell phones, that their use really took off. The age of mobile phones is upon us, but with it come problems that did not exist in an age when telephones were stationary devices. Society is now turning its attention to the issue of mobile phone etiquette, and particularly to users who talk on their phones in crowds without concern for those around them.

I-mode Sweeps Japan
Cellular phone service in Japan began in 1979 with the invention of the car phone. The present-day mobile phone emerged in 1987. The real shift, however, occurred only in 1994, when regulatory reform allowed for cellular phones to be purchased rather than rented. It can therefore be said that the cellular phone phenomenon took shape much more slowly in Japan than in places like Europe and the United States, where mobile phones became popular soon after the development of car units, or Hong Kong, where the phones were actively sought status symbols.

Since 1994, however, the cost of cellular phones and service plans has dwindled, leading to a sharp increase in the consumer base. Since 1996 phone sales have swelled at a rate of 10 million per year. In 1999, when NTT DoCoMo introduced i-mode, a cell-phone service that enables users to view Web pages and send e-mail, sales shot up even more.

Using i-mode, one can access the Web instantly without the necessity of a computer. There was no service like i-mode in Europe or the United States at the time it was marketed in Japan, and so it caught the attention of the foreign press, which characterized it as a Japanese IT revolution. By February 2000, only one year after the service was introduced, the total number of mobile phone users reached 55.5 million, 4.2 million of which had i-mode. And even after that the number of i-mode users increased at a rate of roughly 1 million per month, surpassing 7 million by late May.

The beauty of i-mode is that it allows one to view the contents of any Internet Web site through a small liquid crystal monitor on the phone terminal itself. Even people who lack computer skills can easily read Web pages provided they can operate the buttons of a telephone. There are as many as 6,000 sites especially designed for i-mode phones, featuring simple graphics and quicker download times and navigation. Some of the roughly 340 services offered through these sites include online banking, news updates, airline and concert ticket reservations, and restaurant reviews. I-mode has proven so popular that other cellular service providers are now scrambling to introduce similar Internet services.

Poor Etiquette Arouses Concern
The number of mobile phone terminals in use has now exceeded the number of standard telephone lines, which was 55.7 million in late February. But the popularity of the phones has led to an increasing number of people using them on buses and trains, at times shouting into their phones as though oblivious to those around them. It has therefore become common in most forms of public transportation for operators to ask passengers to refrain from using cell phones while on board. Though the situation is improving, trouble still arises between phone users and neighboring passengers.

In March the Tokyo metropolitan government made a move to prohibit the use of mobile phones on city subways and buses by broadcasting a call for self-restraint on the part of passengers. And beginning in April the East Japan Railway Co. changed the message on its trains, to include bullet trains, from "Please respect other passengers and refrain from using cellular phones" to a much stronger version: "Turn off all cellular phones during crowded hours."

One reason for all this is the fear that when a phone rings near a person using a pacemaker, the radio waves from the device might interfere with the functioning of the pacemaker. Though people have long known of this possibility, it is becoming a matter of greater social concern: Some now advocate prohibiting mobile phone use on buses and trains as the number of people using pacemakers steadily increases with an aging population.

But users also fear that if they do not answer their phones they will lose valuable business opportunities, and so a great number of people do not turn off their phones even when asked to. In short, the improvement of cell-phone etiquette is considerably slower than the increase of consumers themselves.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.