Mobile Phone and Electro-individualism in Japan

Tetsuo Kogawa

Mobile phone is everywhere in the world. Almost no popular movies of contemporary stories let it have a role in the plot. However, the culture of mobile phone is different in each countries and each areas. I am, as a doweler of Japan and a world traveler, interested in the 'ketai' culture of recent Japan. 'Ketai' [pronounced 'kay-tai'] is a popular name of mobile phone in Japanese.

It is quite natural that the same technology creates different cultures and social appearances. Technology is not neutral. Especially today's information/media technology more escalates this tendency because it comes back more closer to the origin of technology:'techne' [in Greek] from where art ('ars') and technique were divided.

Today in the trains and on the streets of Japan, there are many individuals who concentrate themselves into using ketai. It looks like absorbing oneself into 'nintendo' games that used to be very popular or reading a pocket books. But these had each generation such young in games and pocket books in middle. You could not believe many individuals have this "contemplating" (rather just like watching hand mirror) posture in the train. I have never seen this phenomenon in other countries. In Japan (there is not the regulation yet, though) the train company suggests the passenger not to use keitai in the train. So the passenger uses it for reading mail, data, or playing games rather than talking in the train.

In order to argue why this phenomenon appears, I have to refer to how the recent society has been changing. Different from the interpretations by the outside countries, the new prime minister Junichiro Koizumi fascinates the mass audience so strongly that sensitive commentators scent even a "fascist" atmosphere in this phenomenon. Of course mass media involves in escalating his "popularity". But it is also true that in Koizumi's character not only mass media but also companies but also the public find their own expectation and urgent agenda that they thought they should change themselves . Apart from his slogan "Change", the more sociologically important difference of Koizumi's mass-images from the precursors is his "individualistic" and "self-asserting" character. The mass-image of Japanese politician used to make much of quasi-appeasement and anonymous subjectivity.

Older characters have been gradually off the popular mind. In the last two decades the people have become more "individualistic" and "selfish". This has a lot to do with the change or economic-techno structure to the post-service society that the electronic technology has encouraged to change in the last twenty years. Even before Koizumi, there have been already quite many symptoms of this. Quite many "progressive" companies have tended to appreciate an independency of the employee rather than once a famous "collusion=cooperation". Only the political parties and obsolete organizations are persisting in the old ethos. The "individualistic" trend has a public legitimacy in Koizumi's eloquent gestures: that's all.

Individualism is basically not established and vulnerable in Japanese society unless it is supported by an unusual condition. I once called this circumstance as "electronic individualism" referring to the "Walkman" phenomenon. A Japanese with his/her Walkman looked independent and selfish:otherwise shy and hesitating. The Internet and Ketai escalate this direction and guarantees their durable individualism. Ketai is a "transcendental subject" for Japanese young people.

They are eager to input their most favorite ringing sounds ("chakumero") into the machine. While they create the sounds on their own computer by themselves, the companies compete each other to produce various ready-made "chakumeros". It is as if the companies provide various type of ready-made egos.

The advance models of ketai have many functions such as email, game machines, movie player and MP3 players. But the point is that their very usage itself means rather than which functions they most use. In this sense, the posture to use ketai today is similar to the one to electronic games, but the population and scale are beyond comparison.

Young men's first personal socialization starts with letting someone know his/her keitai number. Quite many young people often have two ketais: the one is for their personal use the number of which is told only for their special persons. They (especially young women) sometimes throw away their beloved ketai. This apparently means that there was a separation. A male-chauvinist likes to gift his new ketai to his girl friend.

When young people get together for their new project or some aim, they exchange their ketai numbers (supposedly their second ketai's) each other and memorized them into the machine. Older generations still like the ritual to change name cards ("meishi") each other at their first meeting. But in future name cards might disappear. In the case of ketai, however, young people still remain in the territory of group. They are nervous in personal face-to-face relationship with an other so that they need an initiation. Given the difference of the electronic media that combines and simultaneously diversifies/disperses, exchange of ketai numbers will bring a person to a different way from the meishi exchange.

Few people will borrow other person's ketai. In fact, ketai becomes more and more personalized not only in the Japanese context: there is a trend to use it as a personal identification for shopping and banking. Personal data are input more and more in ketai. It should become more and more miniaturized into artificial brain cells in the end. Ketai is a transitional form of pearsonalization of computer. And the Japanese go with this trend and seem to look for an artificial personality that can confront with physically and psychologically. Dolls, robots and humanoids are an intimate culture for the Japanese.

The question is if such an artificial personality could be an another PERSONALITY? This refers to a question if the computer could have outer ego and world that is otherness. There is an argument that biological computer could do it. But what is the difference between real life and technology-generated life when technology virtually becomes more and more close to our life process?

So I have to conclude that a favor of technological device for an substitutable otherness is a form of hibernation from otherwise severer confrontation of a person with others. This might be a clever attitude against the real world. The Japanese created an empire of "amae" (socially narcissistic self-indulgence) cultures that had a similar function of filtering. However, the general trend such as globalism and technologism will not give any mercy to the exception. Koizumi, too will have to go out not only of his "amae" individualism shielded by the mass media but also of the "amae" system itself to the reality.

This text was translated into "Giappone techno Individualisti si diventa (grazie al telefonino)" in Il Sole-24 ORE, p. 34, August 5, 2001