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To imagine how Americans might be using mobile devices such as cell phones in the future, just look at Japanese youth. At least that’s the conventional wisdom (think Wired magazine’s long-running “Japanese Schoolgirl Watch” column).

But the dynamic may not be so simple. While Japan is indisputably a hothouse of innovation in mobile technology, the way Japanese consumers actually use cell phones and other mobile paraphernalia is an outcome of historical and sociological factors unique to Japan, argues anthropologist Mizuko Ito, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the comparative anthropology and sociology of mobile device usage. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say any [one country] is defining technology evolution,” Ito says.

A research scientist in the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Ito has a joint appointment at Keio University in Tokyo. She’s also the lead editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, a collection of scholarly essays recently released by MIT Press.

Technologyreview.com’s Executive Web Editor, Wade Roush, interviewed Ito on November 8.

Technology Review: How long have you been studying the way people in Japan use mobile phones, and what got you interested?

Mizuko Ito: I first got interested in it about six years ago now. I went to do some post-doctoral work in the late ’90s, and my research topic was how young people were using new media. For the boys, I was sort of gravitating toward gaming studies, but what was so interesting at the time was that the mobile phone was just coming into its heyday in Japan, and it was a technology use being driven by young girls. It’s fairly unusual that teenage girls are seen as technology innovators, so it was a really attractive case for me for a lot of reasons. The gender aspects were interesting, and it was a different type of technology from gaming.

TR: You have dual academic appointments at USC and in Japan, at Keio University. You seem to be in a opportune position to do cross-cultural analyses of mobile technologies. How do you split your time?

MI: I first started my appointment at Keio when I was first living in Japan. I moved back to the U.S. a little over three years ago, to the research center here at USC. Now mostly I spend my time at USC during the academic years and my summers in Japan. The reason it works is I have some really good colleagues in Japan who manage the research, and we are really close collaborators with them, so even though I’ve been away I’m able to stay involved.

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