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Cellular Life in Japan

Anthropologist Mizuko Ito studies Japan’s mobile-phone culture and warns against extrapolating from Japan’s tech development.
November 9, 2005

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.’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.

TR: One of the messages of your new book is that the people in different countries use cell phones differently depending partly on the way the technology is rolled out, and partly on the culture of each country. Do you feel that there’s a misperception out there about cell phone culture in Japan that you and your collaborators were trying to correct?

MI: In conversations about technology in Japan, the assumption is that there is something inherent in a particular technology that makes it get taken up in a particular way, and it’s not inherently culturally specific. But at the same time, if there is something that seems different from how other countries have taken up a technology, it gets attributed to the cultural strangeness of the Japanese, i.e., if the Japanese don’t use cell phones like people in the U.S. it must be something cultural. I’m an anthropologist and I like cultural explanations, too. But it’s important to look at historical, economic, and other factors playing into it.

For example, it would be really easy to say that the reason Japanese people like text messaging over voice calling is because the Japanese are inherently more polite, or they don’t want to disrupt the environment. And that’s probably part of the explanation. But there’s also a lot of important historical reasons why that modality of communication has become so dominant.

The early history of pager technology, for example, had a very strong effect on how text messaging rolled out to other services like the mobile phone. [So many people used pagers for text-messaging before the spread of wireless telephony that texting was one of the first features the Japanese demanded in their cell phones. -Ed.] It’s a little bit too simple to say that any one of those factors is totally determining. The thing I was trying to resist is using culture as a residual category for the otherwise unexplainable.

TR: Your book includes many essays by Japanese scholars. What drives sociological research on mobile devices in Japan? Is there a sense that the way teens and adults use mobile phones is a burning social question?

MI: I think the “moral panic” has calmed down a lot since the period in the late ’90s when it was really a new phenomena…That term actually comes from Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a book by Stanley Cohen that was sort of a sociological work tracking how, whenever there’s a new phenomenon in youth culture, there’s this period where the press takes up these issues in a particular way. The usual pattern is that the activities of a relatively extreme minority of the youth population are generalized to the behavior of youth as a whole.

That definitely happened with mobile phones in Japan. Many people would say the mobile phone had an augmenting or maybe even a determining effect on the emergence of teen girl street culture.

Then there was the issue of manners and usage in public space, and I think that issue has really gotten resolved more or less, unlike in the U.S., where people are still working out the issue of when it’s appropriate to make a voice call. That’s totally disappeared as the subject of moral concern, partly because it’s been successfully regulated. The youth culture issues are inherently more complex, because there will always be a ‘youth problem’ that society is grappling with.

TR: Another theme in the volume is that people in Japan seem to use their mobile phones to strengthen their existing social connections within a fairly small group of intimates – whereas in the U.S., for example, people tend to use the Internet to look outward and communicate with many more people than they usually would.

MI: I think the findings are mainly showing that most [Japanese] kids use their phones most of the time to keep in touch with a close and existing social group. There is a relatively significant minority of kids who use the phones to get outside of that network. These tend to be kids who had their social network handed down to them. It’s less than 10 percent, but they’re important.

If you look at the technical layer, mobile phones are definitely optimized for intimate, interpersonal communication, whereas the Internet is broader. The mobile phone is moving in that direction, but it’s obviously still point-to-point communication.

I’m not really sure if this is an historically specific or culturally specific kind of trend. The fact that for most Japanese kids, their first point of access to the Internet is through the mobile phone, not the PC, is probably having a lot of subtle effects on how that networking is happening. But the concept that it’s allowing kids in Japan to break new ground socially? The research on that is probably more conservative. I’m just starting up some research in that area.

TR: Is there any way in which people in the United States should feel that they are “behind” Japan when it comes to cell phone technology?

MI: I think one of the things that we were trying to argue in the book is that there isn’t a single trajectory [for technology development]. If you look at Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., their technology trajectories have been completely different. That’s where you get an interesting opportunity for comparative sociology.

In the U.S., obviously the PC-based Internet has been the dominant information technology. South Korea is interesting because you see the layering of technologies – they are ahead in just about everything. But all three of these countries are outliers, in some sense. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say any of them are defining technology evolution. They represent three quite disparate ways in which information infrastructures have been rolled out.

Japan is interesting in that, unlike South Korea, it hasn’t been the leader in broadband and network technology. The reason it’s ahead in the mobile space is that it’s optimized for usage in that space. It’s still an advanced information ecology and yet it doesn’t have the same widespread broadband access. The government isn’t paying the same attention to certain forms of broadband wireless deployment.

The U.S. is an incubator for advanced PC Internet technology, and Japan is at the other end of the spectrum. The reason the Japanese are doing more diverse and cool things with their mobile phones is because they’re depending on them more as their primary information devices. It will continue to be an incubator for interesting mobile technologies, but is certainly not the site were you should look for everything IT.

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