I recommend listening to this great report on Japan’s love affair with cell phones by NPR’s On The Media. I was especially glad to hear DeNA’s Satoshi Tanaka point out that the Japanese cell-phone experience evolved from an entirely different context to that of the U.S. While personal computers and Internet access took root prior to advanced mobile technology in the U.S., many Japanese to this day do not own their own computers or even know how to surf the web on anything other than a cell phone. As Mark Phillips summarized:
This has produced two different trajectories for cell phone evolution. In the U.S. we’ve been upgrading our cell phones with the hope of recreating the Internet experience we’ve had for years on the computer. In Japan, since the cell phone has traditionally been the gateway to the Internet, the evolution has instead been in the incremental improvement of the cell phone network and hardware.
It’s important to keep in mind when thinking about Japanese cell phone culture that it’s not like pushing the fast-forward button on the way we currently use our cell phones here. In fact, while it’s tempting to look at all the amazing things it’s possible to do via mobile in Japan and simply declare it a more technologically advanced society, that’s not necessarily the case. In a May 2007 issue of the Japanese magazine AERA, there was a feature article called “The Invisible Wall of the Digital Poor,” which referred to the growing group of young Japanese who had no computer skills and used only cell phones. They were called the “Digital Poor” because their lack of basic computer skills made them difficult to employ. While they may be able to pay for cabs using their cell phones, they are not able to compete as workers in the global marketplace.
There’s been lots written about Japan and its cell phones in recent months, like the New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear on cell-phone novels or keitai shosetsu, which shed light on the successful crossover of melodramatic romance novels from mobile to hardcover. While it’s always very exciting to see new forms emerging from the intersection of technology and culture, I have to say (and I know I sound like a curmudgeonly old man when I do so) that the intensity of cell-phone reliance in Japan is pretty scary and feels symptomatic of a deeper social decay.
It’s not just the eerie silence of being on a subway car filled with people staring at phones. (I admit I fall into doing exactly the same when I’m in Tokyo, and even concede that I prefer text over talking on the phone.) It’s also the worrisome fact that a significant number of Japanese can no longer write in proper kanji without the aid of conversion software. Unlike in English, where the alphabet is essentially all you need to know as a foundation for literacy, the Japanese language requires the ability to read and write thousands of characters for adult proficiency. One may say these cell-phone novels are just a form of “evolution” in Japanese arts and letters, but it’s frankly quite terrifying to think that we may not be that far off from a future in which Japanese literature is reduced to the large-font drivel of anybody with a phone who can type away with an audience-friendly vocabulary of a ten year-old. Perhaps it’s just the lit major in me that thinks 2 million copies of a REALLY BAD BOOK sold, no matter how ‘cutting edge’ its origin, is really just a sign of cultural devolution.