Cell phone usage has undergone a tremendous jump in a relatively short amount of time. Indeed, the time has come when one feels slightly "naked" if one is out and about without one. Interestingly, however, cell phone technology within the United States is in its infancy compared to that found over the Pacific in Japan. In fact, the Japanese are so enamored of their cell phones and new cell phone technologies that Japanese companies are striving to create novel and powerful products to keep pace with the overwhelming demand.
Compared to American cell phone technology, Japanese products are truly striking. Indeed, for an industrialized nation, and a "world leader" at that, it is truly surprising to note the tremendous disparity between United States cell phone technology (in use), and the technology available and utilized even in the developing world. Consider, for example, that even in remotest Africa, cellular transmissions are "fully digital GSM" (Gecko, 2004) while in the United States, many are still using analog systems. Further, one has but to ask anyone in the country "what is the newest thing in your cellular technology?" And they will undoubtedly answer, "My cool ring tone," or "pictures, man!" In Japan, such talk would leave them with a raised eyebrow to say the least.
The simple fact is that North American cell phone technology, for all intents and purposes, is still in its infancy. After all, it is common to have such problems as an inability to text message between different service providers, as well as the dreaded valley, mountain, power line, tunnel, or other "dead zone" in which one simply cannot get a signal. In other nations (again, even developing ones), this problem is virtually unknown.
Perhaps the most interesting difference, however, between the cell phone culture in Japan in comparison with that found in the United States is the immense role cell phone use plays in their daily lives. Indeed, one has but to survey the scene on any busy (or not so busy) street in Japan to note the tremendous popularity of cell phones in modern Japanese society. Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is just what they are doing with them.
Within the United States, cell phones are still regarded as a "safety" or practical device -- mainly used when one goes out into the world should one have a flat tire, or need to remind junior to come home to do his homework. The Japanese, in contrast, realize that their phones offer them a whole world beyond simple "calling."
III. It's an Accessory, Baby
Whereas Paris Hilton is considered a bit extreme for gussying up her $400 dollar cell phone with Swarvski crystals, in Japan, the national obsession with cell phones has made their use as a "fashion accessory" of paramount importance. Consider, for example, what one may find in the famous Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo. There, not only can one find literally dozens of phone models (each compatible with the other -- unlike the U.S. market), but one can also find "faceplates, holograms, interchangeable LED covers, fuzzy cases, stick-on antenna characters, and things to hang off your antenna (Gecko)."
Also consider that whereas in the United States, consumers are likely to go with base models costing one cent, Japanese are willing to shell out the "big bucks" in order to procure the latest model. Indeed, the Japanese are so obsessed with the "newest" technology that a new phone might fetch approximately $300 dollars, while one that is just a few months old will only go for $7 (Gecko). So just what do Japanese cell phones offer that typical U.S. cell phones do not?
IV. It's All about the Signal
To start with, Japanese consumers have virtually no problem receiving or sending phone signals anywhere in Japan. This is because, unlike within the United States, Japanese cellular companies scatter what is known as "micro cells," or mini-transmission stations throughout the country to fill difficult coverage areas.
This means that in the deepest tunnel or parking garage, or on the highest point of Mount Fuji, one can be virtually guaranteed that his or her phone will work -- try that in the U.S.
The phones, themselves are also strikingly different from typical U.S. consumer models. Whereas in the U.S. one is likely to utilize single unit models, in Japan, the most common type is the "flip phone design" utilizing an external tiny screen displaying date, time, signal, and inbox information (Gecko). Further, whereas color screens are the "newest thing" in the U.S., in Japan one can not only expect a color internal screen, but one with incredible resolution. Additionally, most will also have a camera as well as external ports for device connectivity with computers or other technology.
In the U.S. cameras are considered cutting edge, and most phones have virtually no connectivity with other devices.
Let Me Entertain You
Size matters in Japan. Interestingly, however, many Japanese have realized that having a tiny phone is no longer an advantage (whereas in the U.S. market, smaller is still equated with better). This is simply because "the idea behind Japanese phones is to make the screen as big and colorful as possible and to have an easy-to-navigate keypad for messages, games, and more (Gecko)."
Of course, this brings one to the topic of "messaging." Whereas in North America "text messaging" is mainly considered the realm of the pre-teen or teen set, messages between senders of all ages is popular in Japan. In addition, individual service providers allow special symbols to be transmitted that convey emotion or ideas:
Additionally, using one's phone in Japan to send email is common. However, unlike in the United States where email capability is significantly curtailed due to provider incompatibility, one can freely send email between phones with different providers in Japan, creating an ease of use yet to be discovered in the U.S.
V. Serious Gaming
Another important function that Japanese phones fulfill is simple entertainment. Unlike the United States where the most entertainment one is likely to receive from one's phone is from talking on it, in Japan consumers expect much more. For example, most North American phones have one or two games included with the phone. However, these games are usually monochrome, and not very interesting. Japanese phones, in contrast take "phone gaming" to the level of obsession, leaving U.S. consumer's "quasi-tetris" in the dust.
To see the level to which cellular gaming has grown in Japan, one has but to note the plethora of magazines, commercials, and articles devoted entirely to cell phone gaming in the country. Not only do Japanese phones have "an astonishing level of graphic quality and hardware power (Suzuki, 2004)," but the allow for external-source games to be loaded into their phones, much as a Nintendo Game Boy accepts new games. The method with which one acquires new games is far more sophisticated, however, than that found in "cartridge" gaming systems. Instead, Japanese phones allow Java applications in a dizzying array to be not only uploaded via the web, but via continuous connection, allows streaming technology to allow for even more game complexity. This allows for play of "higher-end" games, such as "RPG's" or role playing games, fashion design games, and high graphic-dependent games only dreamt of in the U.S. (Suzuki). In addition, these gaming compatible phones also allow for additional hardware (joysticks, etc.) to be plugged directly into the product.
VI. Movies and Music
Another striking aspect of Japanese cellular technology is its ability to support video and audio applications. This means that not only can one play the latest cool game, but one can also watch short videos, download custom animated screensavers, view web sites with graphics, and shop online. Additionally, one can even download music onto 64 Meg compact flashcards inserted into one's phone (Gecko), turning it into a veritable MP3 player.
VII. I'm Lost!
Whereas in the United States, one can usually only call a loved one to tell him or her that one is horribly lost, in Japan cellular technology allows one to actually find one's way. This is accomplished by the inclusion of global positioning technology in the manufacture of its popular phones. The way this works is that the phone user can not only obtain his or her exact position utilizing this satellite technology, but can also incorporate (via web connection), "a background of streets, terrain, or just about anything else (Gecko)." Further, one can also utilize this technology to either find the exact position of a friend, or enable a friend (or, perhaps, emergency help) to find the position of the cell phone in use. Additionally, businesses within Japan can include their GPS positioning points on directory web sites, allowing their customers to find them quickly and easily.
VIII. Who Needs Cash?
Of course, by far the most interesting technology to the average consumer is the newest development on the Japanese cell phone scene -- namely, what is known as…