Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Benefits of Mobile Communications in Japan

By Lucas Sullivan

Cellphones are now such a common accessory for the typical Japanese student that many view them as “part of their ego,” a medium through which they can broadcast their interests and personality. On Wednesday, March 25, Mito Akiyoshi, a professor from Senshu University in Japan, gave a lecture in the SCILS Building at Rutgers about the trends in mobile communication that she has observed in Japanese society. She made the argument that although mobile devices are considered to be a threat to the productivity of children in Japan, cellphones have important social utility that should not be overlooked.

There were a little less than a dozen attendees at the lecture, with the majority of them being of Asian descent. All but one of the attendees was either a graduate student or a faculty member from the Communications department here at Rutgers. The environment was very casual, and chatting amongst Akiyoshi and her audience was encouraged. Akiyoshi was accompanied by her colleague Jeff Boase, whom she had been conducting similar research with and had worked with him on publishing a variety of scholarly articles. Though she teaches in Japan, Akiyoshi received her PhD from the University of Chicago, so publishing in English is not at all a problem for her.

Akiyoshi began her lecture by explaining that many adults in Japan have the perception that the mobile phone is “evil,” and how the former prime minister of Japan, Yasuo Fukuda, suggested that children be kept away from all cellphones and similar devices. This view isn’t completely unfounded; there are various problems that arise when kids are given free reign over the use of mobile devices. In the first 6 months of 2007, 600 children used online dating services via their phones; these were mostly adolescent girls attempting to trick men in their 30’s into buying gifts for them. There are also problems with bullying, a common problem in children’s society, that carried over to harassment and degradation through mobile communications. Other concerns are that students may become distracted by or even addicted to texting, which can intrude on class time and productive activities quite heavily.

But what about the benefits of owning a mobile phone? Akiyoshi noted that in 2000, mobile phone ownership in Japan was about 20% higher than computer ownership. Unlike PC’s, almost anyone can easily get a mobile phone in Japan. Akiyoshi displayed data she had collected over the past 5 years that demonstrated how genders adapt to mobile phones at an equal rate. This was in contrast to the fact that men were quicker to adopt PC’s, mostly due to middle aged men using these computers for their business purposes.

Many students “feel the need to decorate their phones” with miniature keychains, stickers, whistles, trinkets, and even toys as large as the phones themselves. To these students, the phone is “not just an instrument, but an extension of the [self],” Akiyoshi said. One of the grad students chimed in, saying that while she could not speak for Japanese culture specifically, this practice of adorning one’s phone with various ornaments was a common practice for Korean students as well, mostly for teenage girls. The phone also serves as a great way to “not only build, but maintain” personal networks.

The mobile phone is also a part of the business world. Not only does it facilitate communication between employees who no longer have to be near a landline, but it also presents job opportunities for the everyman. Akiyoshi revealed a website designed to make use of the GPS capabilities in many phones. Using this website, an employer can find job seekers in their local area as quick fill-ins for jobs; an aspiring worker can also see where his services may be needed. One of the professors asked Akiyoshi how often people upgrade their mobile phones – she explained that this usually occurred based on the provider’s contract, much like in the US. Students choose mobile phone providers based on what their families have, so providers gain a generation of consumer loyalty.

Akiyoshi closed her lecture by stating that while phones are most often used for leisure, they can also be used for “purposes that really matter.” For this reason, it may be wrong to try and force mobile phones out of the classroom and replace them with PC’s. Akiyoshi described mobile technology as the “great equalizer” in Japanese society, and concluded that naysayers of its practical use need to be careful to consider the roles of the mobile phone in the “social psychological aspects” of the region.

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