Japan’s Keitai Culture

Japan's Keitai Culture
Japan’s mobile industry and keitai culture have gone hand in hand in innovating cell phone features. This article in Pipeline Magazine gives us some clues as to how.

Yumiko wakes to the alarm on her cell phone. The charm dangling from her keitai is the likeness of Hello Kitty, and it jangles as Yumiko fumbles to disable her phone’s alarm. She strives in vain to stretch away the chill of morning as she begins her day. A day like any other, in which her cell phone, the Japanese term for which is keitai denwa–literally, “hand carry telephone”–will play a large part.

One notable outgrowth of Japan’s unique ethnography has sprung up around the cell phone. In the so-named “keitai culture” the humble cell is king. For over a decade, feature phones in Japan have filled roles Westerners typically ascribe to PCs. So pervasive are cell phones in the daily lives of Japanese that they have taken on something of a “social appendage” status. Keitai sits at the apex of a love triangle with culture on one corner and technology on the other. These three both influence, and are influenced by, each of the others.
So, what challenges or opportunities does keitai present to Japanese mobile carriers? How do they relate to and foster keitai culture, while at the same time, how does keitai influence them? How does that relationship translate to monetization?

Yumiko buys a can of coffee from a vending machine and pays her train fare using her cell phone. The train pulls in at the station, and Yumiko confluences with the tail end of a stream of rush hour commuters boarding the train. Gone are the days when the rail line hired dedicated Oshi ya–or “pushers”–to physically push commuters into packed railcars. Now, station staff fill that role as rush hour demands. A college student utters quiet apologies as he crams Yumiko forward. A recorded voice pleasantly admonishes passengers to refrain from talking on their cell phones and requests riders set their phones to mana modo–“manners mode” or “silent mode.” Having heard the announcement countless times before, it occupies only a peripheral part of her attention, like the sound of cicadas on a summer night. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the railcar, she is busy looking up reviews on tablet devices, wondering how she could use something so big in such a cramped environment as this. She then picks up where she left off on the keitai shousetsu–cell phone novel–she had been reading. This one is a particularly racy pregnancy romance, which Yumiko devours in 100-word morsels downloaded via SMS.

Japan’s mobile industry and keitai culture have gone hand in hand in innovating cell phone features; some things we take for granted, even features that are just now gaining momentum here, have been around in Japan for ages. Short message service (SMS) first sprang up in Europe in the mid-’90s, but in the early ’90s, Japanese were already engaging in a proto-texting via pagers, which used a numeric lingo based on the Japanese words for numbers. Mobile gaming saw mainstream popularity in the early 2000’s.

Japan’s Keitai Culture: Galapagos Now!