March 09, 2004

More on meiru

Discussions over lunch today in the TITech cafeteria clarified some things about Japanese cell phone text messages. If there are mistakes in the summary that follows (and there probably are), it's because I misunderstood.

Japanese cell-phone text messages are always sent as email, and are fully integrated into the regular email system. That's why the same word meiru is used for both. Cell phones are not used for instant messaging, and in fact (at least among my consultants) instant messaging is not much used at all.

Cell-phone text messages are sent and displayed in standard Japanese orthography -- that is, kanji (Chinese logographic characters), two kinds of kana (moraic characters often referred to as a "syllabary"), and romaji (the familiar latin alphabet). Text entry is via kana, using the simple principle that the kana can be arranged in a 5x10 table, so that pressing the "1" key four times means the 4th kana in the first column, namely "e"; or pressing the "4" key once means the 1st kana in the fourth column, namely "ta" (or something like that...). There is an "enter" key that sometimes needs to be pressed between characters and sometimes doesn't, and there is some sort of auto-complete functionality, which (I think) varies among entry software variants.

Though this hardly seems like a very efficient use of keystrokes, people get to be pretty good at it. The folks at the lunch table, after some discussion and experimentation, estimated that practiced users achieve about 15 wpm, and some meiru-atheletes may do substantially better. I was told that a well-known violin soloist, Senju Mariko, is also a novelist, and does her writing by cell phone, because this enables her to integrate her writing into her busy daily life.

The opinion of all the Japanese at the lunch table (three male, one female) was that women are faster at cell-phone meiru than men, and also use it more.

As for why Japanese people in general use cell phone meiru so much, there was agreement that it is considered rude to talk on the phone (cell or otherwise) in the hearing of others, and that talking on a cell phone in a public place would be especially impolite. It was also agreed that cell phone messaging is very cheap, almost free, whereas cell phone talk minutes are relatively expensive. Finally, cell phone message is done with one hand, and so can be done while standing on a train or on a platform or bus stop, where a laptop computer could not be used. Given that long commutes on crowded vehicles are the norm -- one of my friends said that he has a short commute, only one hour each way -- this certainly motivates a one-handed solution, whether for comunication or for web information access or for gaming.

My understanding of the situation in Europe is that the economics are different (SMS messages are far from free), and also that the cell phone messages are not normally integrated into the regular email system, but just go back and forth between cell phones, and that talking on cell phones in public is not any ruder than it is the U.S. So I'm somewhat puzzled about why text messaging by cell phone is so popular there.

Here is a weblog entry from that discusses differences between Japan and Europe, quoting other articles and blog entries -- some (quoted) highlights:

-- Pricing of SMS vs. mobile email is one major differentiator between Europe and Japan

-- The Japanese message lengths are longer (in some cases, 1,000 characters),

-- Some of Japanese are not familiar to PC. Cell phone is major way for mail and web.

And so far, this whole thing is not happening in the U.S. -- because of pricing, availability and interoperability issues, and maybe cultural differences. Will the U.S. just suddenly catch up at some point? or go off in a different direction?

Here, by the way, is a weblog consisting of "pictures or thoughts sent live from my cellphone in japan". (That's "my" as in belonging to the author of the cited weblog, not "my" as in belonging to me). There don't seem to be many Japanese-language weblogs, though.

[Update 3/31/2004: Matt X. emailed to say:

I live in Japan and most of your article matches what my friends tell me -- but the final line, about there not being many blogs in Japanese, is far from the mark. The "census" you link to is also way, way wrong -- looking at their methodology, it seems that they simply aren't looking where the Japanese blogs are.

It would be accurate to say that "there aren't many Japanese blogs which are integrated closely with the America-based English-language blogging community", I guess, but that's only to be expected. If a more accurate census was taken, covering Japanese sites equivalent to livejournal (many of these sites allow or even encourage you to update and view blogs by cellphone, incidentally..), the numbers would look very different.

Someone should tell the people at the NITLE blog census where to look.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 9, 2004 11:35 PM