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Myths behind the rise of the mobile


PERSONAL, PORTABLE, PEDESTRIAN: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 357 pp., $39 (cloth).

Consider the refrigerator. The changes this appliance brought in its wake are monumental. Thanks to that big humming machine in the kitchen, the range of foods that we are able to eat has expanded, illness connected with food spoilage has decreased, and our lives have become more convenient. We seldom bother to think about refrigerators, though, because they have become one of those things that have, to quote sociologist Haruhiro Kato, “become utterly unremarkable and ubiquitous presences.”

Kato, however, was not commenting on refrigerators. He was writing about keitai, the portable communication devices (to call them telephones is to ignore much of what these versatile machines can do), which, for young Japanese, are as necessary, and essentially uninteresting, as the magnet-covered boxes that cool our cola.

One suspects, therefore, that the volume in which the above quotation appears, “Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life,” the first book that treats this subject to appear in English, may also be one of the last. A collection of academic papers about keitai could soon seem as far-fetched as a collection of academic papers about refrigerators.

The studies collected in “Personal, Portable, Pedestrian” do not, for the most part, present information that will be surprising to those in the thick of the keitai culture now ascendant in Japan. Still, taken together, these studies are useful not only as a compendium of what we know but also because they manage to illuminate hitherto obscure corners of keitai culture and to dispel a few myths.

Mizuko Ito, who co-edited the book with Daisuke Okabe and Misa Matsuda, makes the excellent point in her introduction that the stories the West tells about Japan seem always to conform to one of very few templates. “On the one hand,” she notes, “i-mode [NTT’s mobile Internet service] is held up as a technological and business model to be emulated; on the other hand, discourse abounds on the cultural strangeness of Japanese techno-fetishism that casts it as irreducibly foreign.” Ito is certainly correct that stories such as these conflicting accounts of keitai “retain many of the same contours of fascination and unease as [stories told about Japanese business] in the 1980s: emulation of a ‘Japan as Number One’ . . . economic success, coupled with the popularization of the image of the inscrutable Japanese salaryman.”

Oddly, perhaps, some of the stories told within Japan about keitai seem to have less to do with observable reality than with deep-seated needs to interpret that observable reality in particular ways. The unassailable notion, for example, that kids these days misbehave a lot and are getting worse, which is adopted by each succeeding generation of adults, seems to underlie much of the popular discussion of keitai.

Ichiyo Habuchi, in her paper “Accelerating Reflexivity,” points out that “a popular sentiment exists that new media are the source of social problems, driving young people to crime,” and that this alarmist sentiment has given rise to a sort of “moral panic” around keitai use by young people.

One manifestation of this panic has been the notion that when young people commit crimes it is because, having spent so much of their short lives in the myriad virtual worlds modern communication devices make possible, they can no longer distinguish between, say, a character dying in an online role-playing game and a person dying in real life. Given that this is patently ridiculous — the percentage of those who visit virtual worlds and then, as a result, commit real-world crimes is vanishingly small — it is a pleasure to find Habuchi “draw[ing] on empirical data to create a more nuanced and precise view of youth culture and keitai use.”

She takes a close look, for example, at keitai “encounter” (e-mail dating) sites and finds that though there has been great trepidation that these sites would make it easier for girls to engage in enjo kosai (paid companionship or teen prostitution), in fact, only 10 percent of those who form relationships through keitai e-mail ever meet their interlocutors in person. That only a small percentage of that small percentage who actually meet — a tiny number indeed — then engage in prostitution should help to calm those who have gotten themselves into a tizzy over the imagined iron-clad link between keitai and enjo kosai. (It is worth pointing out the odd and telling fact that enjo kosai is always identified as a youth problem — never as a middle-age male problem — though clearly adult men are a necessary factor in the enjo-kosai equation.)

There is a regrettable amount of repetition from paper to paper in this collection (one wishes the editors had actually, well, edited), and the authors by and large shy away from in-depth analysis of their findings. But this book — perhaps the first and last of its kind — is well worth a look for those interested in the state of keitai culture today.