Phoning Mobile in Japan
The keitai evolution
by Alan J. Wiren
Japan is acclaimed as the country with the world's most advanced cell phone technology.
It is easy to believe when you look at the plethora of services and functions available for Japanese cell phones. Some models let you watch television.
Many include a digital camera with an over one megapixel sensor, so that you can take and e-mail photographs or even short movies. One Japanese company has released a combined cell phone, pocket PC with Windows operating system, Word, Excel, Power Point, and Outlook, and camera. It is what some enthusiasts say cell phones should have been all along.
Some providers support the "wallet cell phone". They ask you to imagine leaving credit cards, membership and point cards, transportation passes, and even cash at home, managing your accounts, instead, with your cell phone by passing it over sensors that are being installed in stores, restaurants, stations, and vending machines.
It is not yet a realistic picture, but for cell phone subscribers in Japan, it may not be too far off. Meanwhile they can use their cell phones to shop on the internet, and have their purchases delivered to their homes.
How much of this technology is available to a visitor in Japan? It depends on how long you are staying and, naturally, what you are willing to pay for.
The first thing to know about using a cell phone in Japan is that, if you are coming from a foreign country, it is nearly certain that your own cell phone will not work, even if you have global roaming service.
Cell phones are subject to the same problem that affects most other kinds of rapidly developing information technology: standardization. The standards that Japan uses for cell phone communications are only shared by a very few Asian countries.
This may seem, at first glance, like an arbitrary and frustrating decision. Understanding the basic technology that made cell phones possible may yield a clearer picture of the circumstances. "Frequency hopping" (invented, incidentally, by movie idol Heddy Lemar in collaboration with a musician she met at a Hollywood party) is the means by which the messages you send and receive with your cell phone travel the airwaves.
The sound of a voice, text, pictures, whatever, are transmitted on radio waves that constantly "hop" from one frequency to another. Only the sender and receiver know which frequency will be used next. This not only preserves your privacy, it also allows more calls to be carried within a single range of frequencies.
What frequencies will be used, how often they will change and how to decide which frequency to "hop" to next are some of the decisions that go into creating a standard for a cell phone service provider.
Japan's status as industry leader in cell phone technology means that Japan created its own standard early on. The enormous popularity of cell phones in Japan makes it impractical for Japan to change it.
While many countries have begun using a single standard -- whose name, Global Standard Mobile (GSM), shows that is intended for use world wide -- Japan still uses its own.
If you want to use a cell phone in Japan, you will have to rent one, or buy one and contract for services from a Japanese company.
The good news is that this is very easy to do. There are many cell phone rental companies, both in Japan and in other countries. You can reserve a cell phone for a trip to Japan by phone, fax, or on the Internet.
Most companies will deliver the phone to you in your home country, or at your accommodation in Japan. Japanese companies such as KDDI, Vodaphone, and NTT will let you pick the phone up at their service desk in Narita in Tokyo or Kansai International Airport in Osaka.
The packages offered by most rental companies includes a handset with an English menu that is compatible with the Japanese Standard, a charger and an English operator's manual.
The phone will allow you to make and receive local and international calls, access the internet, and amuse yourself with video games.
Most packages cost in the region of 10,000 yen per month.
Japanese cell phone companies also offer solutions for residents who want to use a cell phone while traveling abroad. You can rent a GSM compatible phone that you can use in nearly 200 countries.
You can have your rented phone respond to the number of your regular, Japanese cell phone and receive calls from Japan while traveling abroad.
You don't have to be out of touch or change your contact information while you are out of the country. Cell phone rental fees must be paid in advance, and fees for services during the rental period will be charged to your credit card.
If you rent from a Japanese company, you can usually return the phone by mail, at any post box within Japan.
Some Japanese companies offer global roaming cell phones that work within both GSM and the Japanese systems. These, however, are not available for rent and, like all Japanese cell phones can only be bought when subscribing to a monthly service package with the companies that offer both.
Subscription and service charges can be billed to any major credit card. Residents of Japan can also have their charges debited directly from a Japanese bank account.
If you decide to buy a Japanese cell phone, you will find that shopping for one is one part accessorising, one part contract negotiation, and one part lifestyle affirmation.
The display cases in electronic stores run on until it seems they ought to fade into the mist. There are folding models, rotating screens, pop out keyboards, antennae, no antennae, and myriad pastels, primaries, two tones, accents and flashing lights.
The packages that are bundled with the phones range from about four thousand to twenty thousand yen in basic monthly fees. The variables include the twenty-four hour service versus daytime only, rates for voice, data, and TV transmission, yearly contract discounts, family discounts, and student discounts.
The major cell phone companies publish monthly catalogues that contain up to four pages of charts comparing the various services, features, and options available for different models.
A quick skim through one of these catalogues will usually reveal a kind of theme. One company emphasizes the handsets' capacity to store and playback numerous songs, another focuses on wireless internet access, another offers a discount rate for e-mail and phone calls to one selected number which they call the "Love Rate".
The cell phone is arguably the invention that has made the greatest impact on society since the automobile.
As the cell phone becomes more deeply integrated into Japanese society and lifestyle, it is not surprising that choosing one begins as an exercise in understanding your own values, then finding the tool that will best facilitate your way of life.
Other articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Stronger Spirit': Nanzenji Temple Complex, Kyoto