March 08, 2004


I've visited Japan a couple of times before, most recently about a decade ago. One thing that's changed since my last visit is texting. Most younger people in Japan now seem to spend a lot of time sending and reading text messages on their cell phones.

This morning, I took the train from Meguro (near my hotel) to Ookayama (near Tokyo Institute of Technology). My car had about 60 people in it. Of these, 12 were busy texting. Among the other younger-looking people in the group, five were sleeping, and one was reading an English workbook. All of the other riders seemed to be older.

A striking contrast to the American pattern is that no one was actually talking on a cell phone. There may be some kind of rule about cell phone usage on the trains, I don't know -- on the bus in from Narita airport, there was a sign in Japanese and English requesting riders not to use cell phones because it "annoys the neighbors". But I don't see or hear a lot of people talking on cell phones here, compared to the U.S. In fact, I don't think that I've actually overhead any cell phone calls during the couple of days that I've been in Tokyo, although I've spent about five or six hours in various public spaces where I'd expect to hear such conversations in the U.S. I've seen people engaged in cell phone conversations, but they have always been doing it so quietly or so much off by themselves that I couldn't hear.

I don't think that I've even seen anyone texting in the U.S. Now that I think about it, this is a bit surprising, since there are plenty of foreign students at Penn who come from places (like China, Korea and much of Europe) where texting is common. Does this mean that texting is only attractive if the telecom price structure discourages talking?

The Japanese texters ("textingers"? I wonder what the agentive form really is...) are highly practiced, holding the phone in the fingers of one hand while pumping away with the thumb at about 5-6 Hz.. If all 12 keys were equally likely, this would be about 20 bits/second; more reasonably, I suppose, it's about 10 bits/second.

Anyhow, I'd like to see a scan of a typical kid's motor homunculus after a decade or so of texting.

[Update 3/10/2004 8:28 am (in Tokyo -- 18:2 3/9/2004 in Philly). A Japanese friend gave me some additional information. First, the Japanese refer to communicating by means of cell phone text messages as "mailing", using the borrowed English verb meiru (I think that's what the right romanization would be), which is the same word used for emailing. Second, many older people do it too, though perhaps not so obsessively; I infer that it has roughly the same distribution as email usage does. Third, some of the kids that I saw clicking away on the train may have been playing games rather than sending text messages -- I checked this morning on the train, and sure enough, some were.

I realize that I don't really know much about how this system works now in Japan -- for instance, are people both reading email messages and doing a form of instant messaging? If so, are the email systems and IM systems integrated with those that work on computers? I'll ask around and report back.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 8, 2004 11:47 PM