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Japan’s Keitai Culture

In the technological wonderland of Japan, a person’s mobile phone is often seemingly their favorite thing. A mobile phone is known in Japanese as a “Keitai”, and Japan has had a rather ubiquitous Keitai culture for quite a while now. Although much of the world has seemingly caught up with Japan’s mobile phone technology, largely due to the advent of such advances as the Apple iPhone, the depth at which Japan’s mobile phone culture is uniquely integrated into Japanese society is truly remarkable.

While emailing a friend and watching a movie or television show on a mobile phone is finally becoming the norm in more and more areas around the world today, many people in Japan have grown up with such technology and it is thus a major part of Japanese society. According to statistics from May of 2008, over 30 percent of elementary school children in Japan already have a mobile phone and almost twice as many (55 percent) of middle school students reportedly do. Safety is purportedly one of the reasons for early adoption being sponsored by many parents, although that is not likely their children’s primary motivation for having one. This is especially obvious when considering that Japan is likely the safest modern society in the world. Having a mobile phone is an essential aspect of relationships in a modern Japanese city and having one is highly important to anyone who wants to build and maintain such relationships. It is likely that a person’s first mobile phone in Japan is akin to a kind of initiation as a normal member of society.

Phones are the primary accessory for almost anyone in Japan. Today, even purchases at stores and restaurants can be made with a quick scan of phones sporting RFID technology. The entrances of public transit systems like the train and subway are also equipped to handle a simple scan of a mobile phone as a person walks through. Even vending machines are now capable of processing purchases by a quick and easy scan of a mobile phone. In a place like Japan, where credit cards are not the norm, an entirely different form of plastic payment is gaining in popularity. One reason is that the user adds money to the phone’s expense account, rather than relying on credit or allowing access to their bank accounts. It is this technology that has finally made the mobile phone potentially the only thing one really need carry on a day or evening out in Tokyo.

Talking is, interestingly enough, less of a popular mobile phone activity in Japan than one may expect. Japan is notoriously polite and discreet, so people speak on their mobile phones in public much less than in is common in many other areas of the world. The almost vocally silent trains of Tokyo are occasionally full of people who may not be speaking, but will instead often be tapping out an email or text message to a friend or associate. Train stations and other highly trafficked places are a great way to catch an anthropological glimpse at masses of people walking with their hands extended out and staring into their keitai screens.