Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
It was one of the subjects everyone among us who used to write about the Internet returned to already since the mid-90s, especially when the Greek or the American market had dried up (e.g. during the summer): the mobile phones of DoCoMo, Japan’s biggest cell carrier and the marvelous services they offered, services unheard of not just for the standards of the, expectedly slow, Greek reality but for those of the European or the American as well. Instead of text messages they were using Internet mail, they offered games, video and TV, they had cameras and image processing software, they had GPS, “read-aloud” applications, they could be used as credit cards and as passes for the trains, they could read QR codes and convert them into information, they could update their user about bargains in stores that were nearby –the list was endless and every few months, DoCoMo (at first, and then KDDI/au and Softbank) would update it adding something new consistent with its, typical for the Japanese, customer satisfaction strategy
Twenty years later all this doesn’t sound that exciting: smartphones, starting with Apple’s iPhone, pulled the rag beneath the Japanese cell carriers and the emblematic thin and stylish flip-phones began their slow retreat after 15 years of glory; for those worrying about the future of DoCoMo, both it and the other companies adjusted almost instantly to the new situation perhaps not without some relief for not having to invent new services all the time (there’s an app for that). From the practical standpoint, the change went unnoticed by the Japanese since the penetration of mobile phones had long exceeded 100% of the population and their use everywhere and always is perhaps the first thing anyone notices as soon as they set their foot in Japan. Especially in the trains, one of the few spaces were the Japanese have time and quietness, staring at your phone seems almost mandatory.
They certainly offer a way to pass the time –or to be more accurate, many ways to pass the time since very often people use them to read, to play games or (nowadays) to connect to the Internet. And they certainly remain sources of very useful information about train schedules, possible delays, the weather or anything else that could, ahem, derail a program calculated to the last second. And they certainly retain their primary function, that of communication. Personally though, I believe that what makes the “keitai” (携帯/portable) indispensable is something more personal: like the surgeon masks I mentioned a while back , they offer the detachedness necessary to survive, especially in metropolises of tens of millions and especially by people who remain deeply introverted; furthermore they offer it while encompassing in a few square inches the most advanced technology the consumer electronics industry has to offer. Was there ever a chance that such a combination wouldn’t succeed?
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.