In Japan, teenage cellphone culture makes real connections

By Liza Mundy

Sunday, March 28, 2010 Washington Post

TOKYO — It’s a sunny day in Harajuku, Tokyo’s trendy shopping district, and Saya Kato, a high school student, is waiting for a friend to accompany her into La Foret, one of the city’s citadels of fashion. Exquisitely attuned to the style of the moment, Kato is wearing a filmy vest over a T-shirt and shorts, sporting a straw fedora and carrying not one but two cellphones.

The first, emerging from a vast pink bag, is a slim, honey-colored basic model with a flat-rate voice plan that enables Kato to enjoy long chats with friends who have the same plan. The second is a hot-pink Sony Ericsson that connects her to everybody else. With it Kato can access the Internet, read the news, watch television, update her blog and the diary she keeps on Mixi, a social networking site, and, most important, text her broader social circle.

Asked how many hours she spends on a cellphone daily, she says simply: “All the time.”

Around her are infinitely more teenage girls on exponentially more cellphones, often personalized with rhinestones and charm-tipped straps. In Japan, Web-connected smartphones became widely available about a decade earlier than they did in the United States, and girls quickly became the most incessant and creative users, driving the ways phones are designed and the extras they come loaded with today.

The country’s cell-obsessed culture now takes its cues from the gaggles of young women carrying multiple phones: Twenty percent of Japanese high school girls own two phones, and some own even more.

So Japan’s teenage girls offer a good window on the way in which ceaseless mobile phone connectedness affects adolescent culture and identity. The good news is that the view isn’t that scary. In Japan, where experts have had years to study the impact of mobile messaging, a number of observers have concluded that cellphone culture can enhance independence, cement friendships and expand horizons.

That’s reassuring to know, as American teenagers in rapidly growing numbers embrace phone texting, phone Internet browsing and phone Facebooking. According to the Pew Research Center, which is preparing to release a major report on the topic, 75 percent of Americans ages 12 to 17 own a cellphone, and they are getting their phones at ever-younger ages. Among teens, 66 percent use their phones to send or receive text messages. As our smartphone market catches up to that of Japan, our devices are gaining the versatility — the ability to blog or social network, for example — that has long been a quality of phones in Japan, which early on had reliable network coverage and a rich trove of apps.

In Japan, girls were the ones who discovered all the ways to live life through a cellphone. They learned that the best way to text in the bathtub is to put your phone in a plastic bag, which protects it in case of droppage but still lets you type. “We love American Ziploc,” says Rika Lindroth, a researcher for Boom Planning, a Tokyo marketing firm that focuses on high school girls. When in public, girls run their phone batteries down so quickly that convenience store managers have taken to taping over outlets to thwart them from plugging in chargers.

“They’ve become so cellphone reliant,” said Yohei Harada, a cultural researcher, that “if they have a paper due, they’ll write the paper on their cellphones, send it to their computer, cut and paste it, and send it in.” They also write and read cellphone novels.

Cell-savvy young women are even credited with inventing a new language. Japanese has three main character sets — kanji, hiragana and katakana — all of which are available on phones, along with Roman and other letters, mathematical symbols, and an array of emoticons, or “emoji.” Several years ago, girls began playfully transposing characters to create something they called “gyaru-moji,” or gal language.

Gyaru-moji can be laborious: The simplest sentence may require a lot of steps. The trouble you’ve taken proves the depth and durability of your friendship. “You’re trying to get a sort of code — not necessarily to shut out, but to enclose and bring in those people who share this common expression,” said Yasuko Nakamura, president of Boom Planning

In the past, Japanese men were the drivers of high-tech electronics — especially computers and gaming — and girls were “really a very marginal group in terms of traditional notions of cultural and social power,” observes Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California at Irvine. Once girls started using cellphones to communicate and refine their personal style (another big phone activity is reading fashion blogs), this “had a big impact on the overall value that was placed on girls’ culture,” Ito says. “You saw teenage girl culture in Japan becoming one of the dominant places people look to for cultural and technology trends.”

In Japan, as here, researchers worry about cellphone addiction, harassment and the deleterious consequences of never being alone with your thoughts. But others have found that phones enhance friendship by providing a reassuring stable of peer support on standby. Calls and texting can supplement face-to-face encounters with side-by-side ones: relationships in which friends are apart but still have a sense of being together, like a married couple sitting companionably in the same room, Ito says.

Or, as one young user, Aya, puts it: “If you are walking and see something strange or beautiful, it’s fine to enjoy it yourself, but it’s even better to message a friend.”

Of course, phones are also used to exclude. Japanese girls have finely nuanced identity groups, and certain groups have developed their own dialects of gyaru-moji. Ditto for phone decorations: Blingy stickers and dangling charms all provide clues to your clique. “I have to confess, one of my great skills is by looking at a girl’s cellphone, I can tell exactly what their age is,” Nakamura says, noting that these days, cutting-edge girls keep their phones plain. She has also tracked the evolution of gyaru-moji, which in many cases has been replaced by easier versions featuring small characters, acronyms, comical punctuation-faces and animated emoji.

Observing phone group dynamics, Nakamura worries that in a relatively conformist culture, messaging or “pinging” exacerbates psychological lockstep, and that it can be distracting when an instant response is expected to every ping. Overwhelmed by the connectivity, girls will sometimes buy a new phone, change their contact information and consign old friends to the deletions of history. “They’ll reach a regular period where they press the reset button on their lives,” Nakamura says.

Other researchers have found the net effect to be positive. Harada points out that traditionally in Japan, “the high school student would only associate with people who were in the same physical class or who had [the same] school activities.” He found that girls’ social horizons were expanded through messaging, bulletin boards and social networks. “I found these gyarus — these playful girls — hanging out at shopping malls, and they knew otaku, or shut-in girls, they knew girls that played sports, girls that were into their studies. These girls, by stepping outside of their value sets, are learning about other values.”

And not every message is banal. Standing on the street after shopping, one girl displayed an e-mail from a friend, featuring a huge “happy birthday” emoji and a message recalling confidences shared, including “being groped at my part-time job or struggles with friends.”

Another, Akane Ota, reckoned that she sends and receives 100 messages a day. “Everybody has their cellphone in their hands, so you can always send a message to someone. To let them know you’re thinking of them.” That way, she says, “Even when you’re not together, you can feel together.”

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