Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Monday, June 12, 2000


E-mail a huge hit among Japanese cell-phone users



TOKYO Suddenly, droves of women on this city's crowded subways are gazing intently into tiny cell-phone screens, checking their messages and then laboriously tapping out replies.

Just as abruptly, office workers are fumbling with the tiny gadgets to confirm evening dates the moment they step out of company headquarters, their faces glued to the monitors almost as if they were navigational aids.

                 Even giggly teenage couples meeting in cafes often seem to reserve their dreamiest gazes not for their dates, but for the e-mail messages constantly popping up on the flip-top phones by which many measure their popularity nowadays.


As if all at once, e-mail has arrived in Japan. If any further proof were needed, the official statistics are in: 10 million e-mail-capable telephones are now in use throughout the country Japan had been one of the slowest developed countries to take to e-mail, thanks in part to the paucity of home computers. But by next year, according to some industry estimates, Internet usage in Japan will be the highest in the world, largely as a result of the explosive spread of cellular phones.

Given the frenzied way that correspondence by cellular phone is taking the country by storm, it is only natural to wonder what in the world people are saying to each other with such urgency?


Try, "What are you eating for lunch?" or "Where are you now?" said 16-year-old Satoko Ishihara, reading two of the latest messages from her little phone as she took a break from her part-time job. Then, after typing in the message "I drank too much last night," came this flash: "My friend just got her hair dyed red, but doesn't like it, so she's decided to cut it off."       

With the cellular phone, the Japanese have married the ever-faster world of the Internet with the seemingly ever-smaller world of Japanese gadgetry, and the repercussions for life here, for the Japanese language and for the future of technology are still being tallied.

It has long been noted here that space is the biggest handicap to the widespread use of personal computers. Many Japanese homes are so small that the living room doubles as the dining room, before finally becoming the bedroom, once the dishes are cleared. But with the cell phone, known here as the keitai, the Japanese have enjoyed a pocket-sized privacy a portable realm where children and lovers are able to lead discreet lives, away from the prying ears of parents and others.

With the introduction of rudimentary Internet service on millions of cell phones here last year, this private realm has just been dramatically expanded; people's telephones now double as portable offices. Making all this work has required another feat of miniaturization with the country's written language.

Four different writing systems are in constant, simultaneous use in Japan, making it one of the world's most semiotically challenged societies. Japanese have long enjoyed abbreviation, but to be practical, writing on a typical 15-button keyboard calls for hyper-concision. The typical New Year's greeting here, "akemashite omedeto gozaimasu," for example, was rendered this year as simply "ake ome" on millions of mobile phones. Still, even this kind of pruning is not enough,  given the multiple strokes needed to produce the right character, from a choice of about 2,000 commonly used ones, for a given word.


For that reason, cellular-phone makers like DoCoMo, the industry leader here, and others have added a whole new set of symbols to the linguistic stew: 200 or so pictographs depicting simple objects like golf clubs, karaoke boxes, movie projectors, food and faces reflecting various emotional states, all if which are now used in combination with ordinary writing to form words.

Thus, "Please call me", is written as a symbol for telephone, followed by kure, a shortened version of a request word.  "Would you like to go out for a drink tonight?" has been radically shortened by the picture of an overflowing mug, followed by the verb ending used in invitations.

Already there are signs that these kinds of linguistic sleights of hand are spreading into general usage. Young women are leading the way, said Hiroyuki Sasahara, of Tokyo's National Language Research Institute. "People have actually begun to use these symbols in their handwritten letters."

Mika Okabe, 19, had no time for linguistic arguments. Indeed, given the 100 e-mails she said she taps out each day on the two mobile phones she carries everywhere, she would seem to have little time to spare for anything else. She is so adept at writing with her phone that she does so without looking.

"We keep our chats short because the screen is limited to 200 characters," she said. "It is cheaper than calling someone on the phone, and moreover, it is fun. For my generation, that has pretty much made it universal."