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Love at First Byte

The scene never fails to startle visitors from the United States. A subway train stops in the station, and the public-address system announces a pause to clear some bit of detritus from the tracks. Delayed for several minutes in hyperpunctual Japan, all the passengers silently and simultaneously extract their cell phones and thumb-tap messages to whomever they are on their way to meet: Sorry, I’m going to be a little late…

Japan isn’t the most wirelessly connected society in the world; that honor goes to Taiwan and Luxembourg, which both have 106 cell phones for every 100 inhabitants, compared to a mere 64 per 100 in Japan, according to the most recent data from the International Telecommunication Union. But the Japanese use mobile communications for more purposes than any other people. Text messaging, for example, is a strongly encouraged alternative to phones ringing and people chatting in public places, which are (rightly) considered irritations. A common sight in grocery markets or takeout stands is a man photographing a food display with his phone, cell-mailing the image to his spouse, and asking whether the food should be purchased. Meanwhile, bored children riding in the shopping cart play fortunetelling games on the family’s second phone.

According to Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication, the reason for this rapid adoption of cellular technology lies less in the peculiarities of Japanese etiquette than in the nation’s dense, urban population and relatively low rate of computer ownership. “The Japanese spend tremendous amounts of time on mass transit and as pedestrians in cities,” she says. “So where U.S. teenagers might sit in their suburban bedrooms and instant-message each other from their computers, Japanese kids, who don’t have their own computers and their own bedrooms, are out on the train or in city streets texting each other on the keitai [cell phone].” As the U.S. grows denser, more urban, and more dependent on mass transit, it may well become more like Japan. “In that sense,” Ito says, “Americans can look to Japan as the future.”

DoCoMo has long fueled the Japanese love affair with cell phones. The firm officially began life in 1992, when the government eliminated NTT’s previous monopoly on mobile communications. At that time cell phones were “an executive tool supplied by the corporation to a select few,”according to Kenji Kohiyama, a longtime NTT executive and director of DoCoMo House, a company-sponsored communications think tank at Keio University near Tokyo. In Kohiyama’s view, cell phones did not become a mass-market item until 1994, when DoCoMo stopped leasing them to customers and began selling them outright at reduced cost, making up losses on their sales through the increased volume of telephone calls. Within two years, the number of DoCoMo subscribers doubled, from fewer than 1.5 million to almost three million. In five years, the number was almost 20 million.

That year-1999-the company introduced i-mode. “We thought the market for voice was saturated, so we had to do something,” Natsuno says, half-joking. “So we brought the phone into the Internet-the virtual world.”

Users at first could do little more than access a few score corporate websites. But because i-mode used a special, compact version of ordinary Web software rather than the wholly new software demanded by European and U.S. cell-phone companies, individuals and companies were quickly able to put up tens of thousands of i-mode sites, DoCoMo-endorsed or not. Meanwhile, DoCoMo kept expanding the capacities of the handsets; the newest models, introduced in March, can take two-megapixel photographs, read Word and Excel files, record up to two hours of audio, and run Flash animations and PlayStation-like games on screens that by U.S. standards are startlingly crisp and bright.

Today, says Natsuno, “We’re starting to saturate on multimedia. So now we bring the phone to the real world.”

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