Once upon a time, articles used to appear in Japan’s vernacular press disparaging the self-absorbed behavior of cellphone users — both as a violation of public manners and as a hazard to oneself and others. But by 2003, such tirades had almost completely vanished.
The Sankei Shimbun, in a rare exception back in January 2007, raised the topic of “enslavement to cellphones” as a serious social problem that had begun to disrupt proceedings in the National Diet. There, it reported, legislators could frequently be seen fiddling with their phones.
“From the speaker’s seat, you can see it going on. It’s shameful,” Kozo Watanabe, a senior DPJ legislator, was quoted as saying. “It seems we no longer have the sense of pride and responsibility that would serve as a good example to the people.”
So how, then, does one explain the sudden surge in articles critical of sumaho — which is how Japanese refer to smartphones? After all, as far as I can tell, there is no apparent difference between the users of smartphones and “dumb” phones, in that both squint at them hypnotically, mesmerized as they constantly text, play games and who knows what else on station platforms, stairs and escalators, while crossing street intersections, while driving, riding bicycles — and when seated in restaurants on dates with members of the opposite sex.
Suddenly there’s even a public-service TV spot about them. Produced by AC Japan and NHK, the 30-second spot shows a young woman irked by a near-collision with a harried phone-carrying young man on a sidewalk, and a moment later with another man who exits a building with eyes glued to his sumaho. She then scowls disapprovingly as a young phone-carrying mother pushes a baby stroller across a crosswalk, completely disregarding her small child, who runs on ahead. “Aa, wā. Kizuitenai (Oh my, she’s not paying attention) . . .
“Saikin ōi yo ne, kō iu nagara-sumaho” (“There’s a lot of nagara-sumaho going around recently”), she remarks with what could be described as mild disapproval.
For the uninitiated, nagara is a particle following verbs that means “doing something at the same time.” The word nagara-zoku (zoku means “tribe”) was coined around 1958 following the observation by Fumio Kida, then a professor at Nihon Medical School, that people in the habit of multitasking — such as studying with their radio turned on — showed deficiencies in their ability to concentrate.
So what’s the explanation for this surge in concern over the poor manners and inattention of addicted users — especially considering smartphones are arguably no more distracting than the previous generation of mobile gadgets?
I don’t believe in coincidences. From Sept. 20, NTT Docomo, Softbank and au all began selling Apple’s newest-model iPhones, and I suspect the big difference is that foreign brands are threatening to expand their dominance of the market. So behind this wave of complaints is wounded national pride and concerns that Japanese firms are being nudged out of their own (very lucrative) market.
Noting the withdrawal of such majors as Panasonic and NEC Corp. from the smartphone business, The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 6) asked, “Will Japanese Smartphones Survive?” Citing domestic market share data for the 12 months through March 2013 from Japan’s MM Research Institute, it reported that Apple was the largest vendor with a 35.9 percent share, followed by Fujitsu with 13 percent and Sony with 12.
An Op-Ed in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Sept. 16) also took up the safety theme, noting that from the beginning of September, moving electronic displays in Tokyo Station began posting the message, “Walking while operating a smartphone is extremely dangerous.”
Nikkan Gendai (Oct. 4) pulled no punches, heralding the opening-up of iPhone sales across all three of Japan’s major telecommunications firms with the headline “Jigoku no hajimari” (“The beginning of hell”). It then went on to quote Fumio Shimura, Shizuoka Institute of Science and Technology professor and author of the book “Sumaho Chudokusho” (“Smartphone Addiction”), as describing smartphones as “the opium of the 21st century.”
Shukan Bunshun (Oct. 10) ran an article by nonfiction author Yuki Ishikawa with the headline “Six rules for rescuing your child from smartphone dependency.” Ishikawa appears to favor restrictions on usage, such as the “shutdown system” that went into effect in South Korea from 2011, which prevents mobile users under age 16 from accessing the Internet between midnight and 6 a.m.
And how about you, dear reader? Are you addicted to your smartphone? Shukan Asahi (Nov. 1) provides a self-administered test to find out. If you respond “yes” to some of the following, you may need to undergo detoxification:
• “If I forget to bring my smartphone, I’ll go back to get it, even if it means my being late.”
• “I feel relaxed just touching my smartphone.”
• “I find myself touching the screen, even without any specific purpose.”
• “I worry about the battery running down, so I always carry a charger with me.”
• “I take it with me into the toilet or bath.”
• “I can’t stop using it, even when my eyes are tired and my neck is stiff.”
• “The smartphone is the cause of my insomnia.”
• “I fiddle with my smartphone even when I’m together with friends or my lover.”