Contextualizing Japanese Youth
and Mobile Messaging
Ever since NTT Docomo launched its i-mode mobile Internet service in 1999, international attention has been trained on Japan as a hothouse for incubating the future of the wireless revolution. In particular, international technology communities have noted and often celebrated handset design by Japanese electronic manufacturers, third-generation infrastructures, video and camera phones, and mobile entertainment. A focus on ever-new advanced technical functionality, however, can often lose sight of the social, historical, and cultural context through which contemporary Japanese mobile media is structured and has evolved. As Richard Harper (2003, p. 187) has argued, “mobile society is not rendering our society into some new form, it is rather, enabling the same social patterns that have been in existence for some time to evolve in small but socially significant ways.” In this chapter, we analyze the text messaging practices of Japanese youth as an outcome of existing historical, social, and cultural factors rather than as something driven forward by the inherent logic of new technology.
On the basis of the distinctiveness of young people's mobile media usage, we argue for the context specificity of meanings and usage of new technologies. Even as mobile phones have become common in all age groups,1 young people use their phones more, spend more on them (IPSe, 2003), and have unique patterns of usage. Particularly distinctive is usage of mobile e-mail2: 95.4% of students describe themselves as mobile e-mail users, in contrast to 75.2% of the general population (VR, 2002), and they send a higher volume of messages.3 Students also tend to be more responsive to the e-mail that they receive. Almost all students (92.3%) report that they view a message as soon as they receive it, whereas a slimmer majority of the general population (68.1%) is as responsive. Many older users say that they view a message when convenient to them or at the end of the day (VR, 2002). What is behind these distinctive patterns of usage by young people?
This chapter answers this question by analyzing ethnographic material on mobile phone usage in relation to three different contextual frames. The first of these frames is constructed by the “power geometries” (Massey 1994) of existing places of home, school, and public places. Next, we present the central social context in which youth peer messaging practice is situated—the intimate peer group. Finally, we analyze how this ethnographic material articulates with longstanding intergenerational dynamics in postwar Japan. Our focus is not on the uptake of a particular technology (i.e., short text