Yuko, 38, an office worker, has keitai straps appropriate for each season — furry ones for winter and beaded ones for summer. When the temperature changes, she adds another to her collection.
“It must always be original,” she says, holding up her recent favorite: a keitai strap her friend bought her from Tokyo Disneyland with Mickey Mouse-shaped beads on it. “It’s a limited edition,” she says proudly.
“When I leave my wallet at home, I can survive by borrowing money,” she says. “But if I forget my keitai, I’m worried all day because there’s no substitute.”
Yuko’s sentiments are shared by a substantial number of Japanese for whom the keitai isn’t just a mod con — it’s a necessity. For the habitual keitai user, personalizing a keitai is an attempt to transform a mundane communication device into an expression of individual identity, and the keitai strap leads the way in achieving this aim.
These straps are readily available at many shops (Tokyu Hands Shibuya alone stocks more than 1,000 different ones), as well as at concerts, sport events and many tourist sites. Companies have also cottoned on to the fact that keitai straps make cheap promo giveaways to effectively advertise their corporate logos.
When keitai first appeared in Japan in 1989, they were already equipped with a strap and a hole through which the strap could be looped — a feature that was pioneered in Japan. Surprisingly, though, even major telecommunications companies or mobile phone manufacturers do not have a clear answer as to why the feature was created in the first place.
Shin Mizukoshi, associate professor of media studies at the University of Tokyo, suggests that the convenient strap of Japanese compact cameras may have influenced the development of keitai straps. “Maybe the keitai designers, as well as the users, were used to the combination of technology and straps and accepted this on keitai [without question],” he said.
Whatever the reason, keitai straps were probably intended to be a practical way of carrying the once-weighty phones around without dropping them. No one imagined, however, that the unassuming strap would spawn a whole new gadget culture.
But according to Atsushi Higuchi, the president of StrapYa.com, an online store that sells more than 3,000 keitai accessories, Japanese have traditionally been attracted to decorative accessories.
As an example, he cites ne– tsuke, a miniature sculpture that was attached to a kimono sash by a silk cord. It was worn at the waist by men to suspend purses and tobacco pouches. Even today, Higuchi added, it is not uncommon for children to sport ornamental key chains on their school bags.
Consumers have a diverse — and ever expanding — range of keitai gadgets to choose from: handy neck straps and mobile-phone cases on the one hand, and nifty antenna rings on the other. For those who use their keitai to send e-mail, there are button-stickers to raise the keys and make inputting easier. To protect privacy, a sheet can be pasted upon the keitai screen, making it difficult for anyone standing next to you to read it. For those who want a new look for their keitai without the extra expense, there are stickers that fit over the phone, completely changing its appearance.
Accessories notwithstanding, keitai designs are continually evolving. What makes Japanese keitai slimmer, cuter and more colorful than their counterparts overseas? According to Nahoko Mitsuyama, an analyst at Gartner Japan Ltd., Japan’s keitai models are more adventurous primarily because young people were among the earliest consumers. Many cellular phones made overseas, on the other hand, are still thick and heavy and come only in standard colors, as they are mainly intended for grownups and business people.
“Young people accepted keitai as one of their many accessories,” Mitsuyama said. They were the ones, she added, to trigger the trend of keitai decoration.
Higuchi of StrapYa.com speculates that 60 percent of keitai users favor accessories. He also observes that people tend to get new straps when they switch to a new keitai. “After people pick one of the many keitai models on display, they want to decorate it,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the keitai becomes an indispensable part of life, other industries are taking their cues. Bag makers design special keitai pockets for their products — sometimes on the outside of the bag, but more often on the inside. “This gives the bags added value,” said Takao Komatsu, president of Gia Co., a bag designing firm.
In a similar manner, most men’s suits now have pockets on the inside designed for keitai. The depth and width of the pockets have changed over the past few years as the market moves from the longer variety of cellular phones to the folding sort, said Tomokazu Higashi, project manager at Itochu Fashion System Co., a Tokyo-based think tank.
“It used to be called the tobacco pocket, but now it is called the keitai pocket,” he said — illustrating, with those few words, just how fast cultural fashions can change.