People who at first glance seem to be carrying on animated conversations with themselves, complete with bows and gestures and sometimes so loudly they annoy anyone near them, are a common sight nationwide. Of course, they are not conversing with imaginary listeners. As most of us know because we are among them, they are talking to real people, a colleague or business associate, a family member, friend or lover, on one of the now ubiquitous mobile telephones that have transformed the whens, wheres and hows of interpersonal communications for much of the world.

Some commentators express surprise that the Japanese, not known for expressing their opinions publicly, should have embraced the tiny phones so wholeheartedly. They may be overlooking the greater anonymity that mobile phones provide, since one of their conveniences — as well as potential dangers — is that they can be used surreptitiously, away from prying eyes and ears.

There can no longer be any doubt about their increasing acceptance. As of the end of March, subscribers to mobile-phone services — for cellular phones, personal handy-phone systems and special car phones — totaled 56.72 million, for the first time outnumbering the 55.66 million subscribers to established fixed-line phone services.

In the more than one century since the conventional telephone was introduced here, the instrument has played a major role in unifying the country. In the days when private ownership of one of the coveted instruments was still a mark of social distinction, it would have seemed inconceivable that palm-sized mobile phones would become so common that they are catching up with umbrellas as the most frequently forgotten items on public transportation. Even more surprising may be the fact that, as prices fall and more advanced models proliferate, few people take the trouble to reclaim the phones they left behind.

The world has changed a great deal since 1876, when the Scottish-born American inventor Alexander Graham Bell became the first person to speak on a telephone line, uttering the immortal words to his assistant in another room “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you” into the transmitter he had devised. Bell, who lived until 1922, originally envisioned his invention as an instrument to aid the hearing-impaired. At the time of his death, of course, it was already in wide use by the general public, although central switchboards were necessary for routing calls and operator assistance was needed for many services.

In those days, there may also have been general agreement on the need for basic standards of telephone courtesy. While it is impossible to turn back the clock, contemporary convenience is no excuse for today’s mobile-phone users to show little concern for other members of the public. Unfortunately, it seems to take more than appeals to conscience to ensure mobile-phone manners. The ban on use of the phones by drivers of moving vehicles has proved effective in reducing traffic accidents that were sometimes fatal. And there is wide compliance with requests to switch off the devices at theaters and concerts, so as not to disturb performers and other members of the audience.

The level of the public manners currently on display in Japan’s urban train and subway stations and on crowded transportation, however, is not high. So it should come as no surprise that East Japan Railway Co. is having difficulty implementing its new campaign to ban the use of mobile phones during rush hours. Previously it merely asked riders to switch off the phones, and that policy continues during off-peak hours. During rush hours, however, the company is telling passengers — politely, to be sure — to turn off their phones because they can interfere with the working of heart pacemakers. Yet the announcements are being widely ignored.

Experts say that a pacemaker can malfunction if it comes within 22 cm of a cell phone. Some mobile-phone owners do not seem to care, considering the ban an infringement of a basic right and arguing that there is no point to carrying a mobile phone if it cannot be used. The problem, and others like it, will only get worse as the number of subscribers using new models of the phones to access the Internet grows. One of these services is having temporary difficulties now, but industry analysts expect the total number of users accessing the Internet through mobile phones to soar to more than 48 million by 2003. In that event, common-sense telephone manners may have to be spelled out by law.

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