A group of individuals use mobile phones on public transit

Anthropology of Mobile Phone Culture in Japan

The History and Development of Cell Phones

The mobile, or cell, phone has been one of the largest technological innovations in recent decades. It has reworked business practices, sociality, and the way we spend our time. In fact, there is a decent chance you are reading this on a phone at the moment. However, if one were to look back a decade or two ago, this was not the case. While mobile phones certainly had early adopters, they did not catch on initially with most people. Early models were blocky, inconvenient, and exorbitantly priced, and therefore, only useful primarily for business-related work. If you were to picture a business worker, you may picture someone in formal wear, engaged in an intense phone call.

In Japan, the mobile phone or keitai denwa, caught on much faster for a broader public. Japan is famously known for being often ahead of the curve in similar ways. Multimedia experiences define much of Japanese popular culture. Starting in the 1990s, much of Japanese urban culture was radically redefined by the introduction of cell phones, well before they made a significant impact elsewhere. Much of today’s culture of texting and frequent usage of phones was greatly inspired by these early adaptors.

Evolution of cell phones lined up.
Image Source: Wikipedia Image Commons

Cultural Impact of the Mobile Phone

The mobile phone has redefined how we interact with public spaces. Now, cell phones are commonly used to listen to music in public.They are often used to provide a sense of privacy and isolation in public space. They also rework how individuals plan events. This includes navigation and meeting up. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have also changed how we work and learn. As one of the main technologies of most modern, globalized cultures, it is an important cultural object.

Cell phone use is dictated by what individuals want to use them for. This can vary greatly between demographics, subcultures and countries. While many focus on the negative aspects of phone use, such as distraction and addiction, they also provide many positive technosocial advantages. Communication, sociality and language are the building blocks of culture. The mobile phone has made such drastic shifts to these areas, and it seems impossible to imagine not using them.

Japanese people on their phones during dinner.
Image Credit: Flickr

Keitais: Japanese Innovation

As mentioned, Japan is well known for its usage of cell phones. This usage developed initially with businessmen stereotypically, before becoming associated with youth culture. Particularly young girls became, often through latent sexism, associated with mobile phones. With the adoption of many technological changes are moral panics attached to the youth generally. In prior generations, advancements like the television were viewed as damaging youth sensibilities. More recent generations of the last two decades have been associated with phones and internet usage. This trend occurred first in Japan for mobile phones.

Forms of Japanese Innovation and Influence

As Japan is a center of technical advancement, they had phones that could text and use internet communication through emails sooner. This enabled a development of a youth communication-based counter-culture. Japan also developed phones with internet connectivity sooner, using data through 3G infrastructure. Another innovation came in the form of cell phone cameras which could be used for romance and sociality. Various forms of Japanese innovation, both imagined and real, has shaped popular culture. If you were to imagine a cyberpunk or futuristic city, it may look Japanese. William Gibson and others have crafted mediatory examples of the future that rely on these tropes of technological advancement (Ito. 2005).

Man on bike uses cell phone
Image Credit: Gothamist

Nagara Mobilism

Nagara mobilism is the concept of a form of technology use. It describes a common practice in which individuals will walk, bike, or multi-task while interacting with mobile phones. Nagara is a Japanese word that can roughly be translated to multitasking.This practice can be commonly witnessed in public spaces, like cities. How individuals act in urban space is shaped by these behaviours. Often, the phone can provide a sense of privacy or intimacy within these shared environments. In this sense you can interact with spaces far away from you, while also going about your daily routine.

These individuals may be seen listening to music or scrolling on their phones while moving about cities. This practice is more common in Japan and became popular earlier there. However, it does still exist elsewhere, and is a common form of phone usage (Ito et al. 2005). Next time you visit an urban center, you may observe the complex and varying ways people use phones while commuting and moving about. Phones can now be used for games, calls, text conversations, photography, and countless other usages.

business man using a mobile device in a cafe
Image Credit: Financial Times

Business Culture

Business culture is commonly tied to early adoption of the mobile phone. Since they were prohibitively expensive in their early years, it was unlikely for individuals to purchase mobile phones. They were bulky, and the average consumer had not yet learned of the serious advantages of them. Other early adopters would purchase them just for use in their cars. In Japan during the 1990s, an increasing number of salarymen, a Japanese term for office workers, began to use mobile phones. They were viewed as uncool initially due to this association.

Keitai use among salarymen afforded them the ability to easily communicate for business-related purposes. As we know, as cell-phones became popular, like with many technologies, it was lead by the youth. The truly popularizing features of cell-phones were not the ability to call. In reality, mobile phones seemed to truly take off once texting and 3G/4G data usage became popularized. The ability to extend cyberspace into the streets was groundbreaking (Ito et al. 2005).

laptop at a cafe
Image Credit: Medium

Interacting with Urban Space: Cocooning, Camping and Footprinting

Technology researchers Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Ken Anderson studied various forms of phone usage in cities. Three common practices emerged as affordances of mobile phone usage. These are named cocooning, camping, and footprinting. Cocooning is the process of forming  a private space through media devices that is separate from physical location. This allows for the creation of personal isolation within bustling urban centers. You may have practiced this yourself, perhaps listening to music while on the bus or train. These also may be referred to as telecocoons (Ito et al. 2005). Ultimately, cocooning is perhaps the most common of the three forms of phone usage outlined.

Camping is a more extended form of cocooning that tends to be associated with less individuals. If you have ever seen a business professional set up in a coffee shop with a latte and a laptop, they may be camping. This practice involves created a media-based camp within a public facility. Those with no access to good office spaces for working may also practice camping. It is also practiced by students who study in public libraries or cafes. Thirdly, footprinting is the process of recording interactions with public space through the use of media. This can be done through membership cards at various businesses that track and reward frequent consumers. This trend arose after businesses exceeded the sizes in which workers could recognize regulars easily. Other forms of footprinting could be done by the individual too, like geotagging and marking their phone-use through social media (Ito et al. 2009).

Key chains attached to mobile phone
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Kaomoji, Aesthetics, and Girl Characters

Youth culture has historically held a major role in the shaping of what would become ubiquitous technologies. Many youth tended to embrace new communicative practices, like texting, prior to adults. They also innovated in the aesthetics of mobile phone use. The culture surrounding decorating ones phone is hugely important amongst Japanese youth. Decorative phone cases and attachable charms were largely popular. There is also a primarily female angle to understanding this technological development. In Japan, females have been associated with moral panics. Moral panics are a process in which new developments are often met with reactionary backlash and fears. Female Japanese youth have experienced many, initially for their use of cute or kawaii forms of writing that occurred in several phases throughout the 20th century.

The Linguistic Anthropology of Texting

Later, this form of linguistic innovation spread to the cell phone. These early female adopters began to incorporate fascinating linguistic diversity into their communicative practices. This allowed them to create unique emojis, or kaomojis, as well as write aesthetically stylized words. They incorporated scripts from across the world to do so. This included Cyrillic, Greek, the Roman Alphabet, and the various Japanese scripts like Katakana (Miller). This process is a fascinating topic for exploration by linguistic anthropologists as it shows a subcultural evolution of language use that is highly complex to a seemingly unnecessary extent.

Cyborg drawing
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cyborg Anthropology

Cyborg anthropology is a subfield developed by anthropologist Donna Haraway. She developed the concept in the 1980s. The theory describes the state that Haraway predicted in which technology would act as a form of cultural prosthesis (Haraway). This means that the abilities of the human body would become more dependant on technology. Consequently, as human technologies grow in complexity, they shape culture increasingly. Today, many staples of modern life, like electricity and the internet are now taken for granted. The majority of our social interactions are now defined by technology.

The Mobile Phone as Prosthesis

Nowadays, as we become increasingly interlinked globally, technology evolves to meet such communicative standards. In the modern age, many cultures overlap due to this ability. It is now possible to have friends, and even romantic partners, across the globe. Haraway’s focus on studying the intersection of human behaviour and technology was truly forward thinking. It is now practically impossible to study anthropology without technological mediation and the consideration of it. As we constantly use our phones to perform our daily lives, they function almost as a prosthesis that redefines activity.

Laughing friends with cell phone at cafe
Science Photo Library

Norms and Phone Usage

Phones can also be seen as form of normative behaviour that follow social expectations. Almost any common action develops its own framework of norms and deviant behaviour. Perhaps you have witnessed a person loudly arguing on their phone in public. Such an action would be noted by social scientists as being normatively transgressive. This behaviour defies the expectations and unspoken agreements of shared spaces. In different cultures like Japan or America, such expectations may also vary dramatically. It may also be considered to be rude to be on the phone while interacting with an employee in a store, or with a friend. If you appear distracted by your phone during conversation, this may also breaks norms.

people walk in the streets on their phones
Photo Credit: Verizon

Ethnomethodology and Phone Use

Walking and being distracted by a phone game or texting could also break the expectations of sidewalks and busy areas. Ethnomethodology is the anthropological study of standard actions that may seem routine or unworthy of study, like walking. In fact, some of what seems so obvious is more important to study and note. However, most individuals do not keep track of these quotidian occurrences that seem so mundane. Therefore, noting these small interactions with mobile phones as they rapidly shift is one of the important impacts of the study of modern technological research. One can apply ethnomethodological approaches to phone uses in public spaces to see that culture and society dictate even such small behaviours.

a group of individuals use their phones
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Globalization and the Mobile Phone

The mobile phone is a significant shaper of modern life. As one of the most definitive technological advancement of the last few decades, perhaps second only to the internet. While it now has become so ubiquitous as to be unconsidered, it should be noted how radically social life and culture is shaped by these connections. As the world becomes increasingly globalized the use of mobile phones and the internet helps achieve ties across global cultures. Due to this, it accelerates the sharing of cultural ideals. Today, we are in an unprecedented era of technological reliance and change. As it becomes possible for the world to connect, we will witness continual cultural shifts. Technology will likely continue to afford new technosocial advantages.

Significance to Anthropology: The Phone as Connecting Thread

Since it is one of the leading nations of these changes, Japan is an important cultural case study of the importance of technology to modern anthropology. Paying more attention to the small ways we use and rely on our mobile phones can teach us important lessons about modern life. While mobile phones are ubiquitous, they are also always changing. It is important to understand how at various times, they way they shape our lived experiences varies. Therefore, the mobile phone should not be disregarded as a powerful cultural tool. While it holds both positive and negative applications, it hugely important to many ways of life. In conclusion, as a staple of modern lives, technology is one of the most informative sites of research globally.


  • Haraway, Donna. 1991. A Cyborg Manifesto. in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149-181. Routledge: New York.
  • Ito, Mizuko. 2005. Personal Portable Pedestrian: Lessons from Japanese Mobile Phone Use. The Asia-Pacific Journal 3, no. 5.
  • Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda. 2005. Personal, portable, pedestrian: mobile phones in Japanese life. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press: Cambridge.
  • Ito, Misuko., Okabe, Daisuke., and Ken Anderson. 2009. Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places, in The Reconstruction of Space and Time. Routledge: London.
  • Miller, Laura. 2011. Subversive Scripts and Novel Graphs in Japanese Girls’ Culture. Language and Communication.¬†

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