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How Japanese Schoolgirls Started A Mobile Phone Revolution

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My good friend Brian Ashcraft at Kotaku wrote another book! It's called Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, and this time, he explores and explains how Japanese schoolgirls have changed and shifted Japanese society. Among the most important things they've influenced? Cellphones.


The mobile phone revolution came early to gadget-crazy Japan, and 80 percent of Japanese now own at least one. There are over 100 million users with advanced third generation handsets. But it was schoolgirls, not business men, who kicked phone technology into high gear. And it all started with pagers.


Originally intended for salary men, pagers caught on with teens in the early nineties, and millions and millions of colorful versions called "Pocket Bell" were sold. Professor Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist known for her research on how teens use technology, suggests that Pocket Bells were the first viral youth tech. Though basically just a pager, what made the Pocket Bell different was how teens starting using them. Instead of punching in a phone number for a call back, kids started sending each other primitive messages using numbers. The coded patterns varied from school to school, and friend to friend, but by using them, girls could transmit secret messages right under the noses of nosey parents and school authorities.

Paging Japanese schoolgirls . . .

What codes did schoolgirls send to their friend's pagers?

3341 samishii (I'm lonely). Three (3) being read as sa and mi, four (4) as shi, and one (1) as i.

106410 teru shite (Telephone me). Ten (10) can be tou or even dou, but here it is te, because it's short for "ten." Six (6) is ru for six roku. Four (4) is once again shi and again ten (10) is te.

14106 ai shiteru (I love you). One (1) meaning ai as the number one looks like the letter "i." Four (4) is shi, ten (10) is te and six (6) is ru.

When pagers evolved to display more than numbers pressing the number "1" twice would create the Japanese character あ. Pressing "2" then "1" would create the Japanese character か, while pressing "3" then "1" would create さ and so on.


"What makes the case of the Pocket Bell so unique," says Ito, "was how quickly the industry acted." Mobile service providers responded to the potential in the teen market by rolling out models in various colors. More importantly, they introduced a simple text message function. Instead of primitive numeric codes, characters from the Japanese alphabet could be input by punching in certain combinations of numbers. It was the start of text messaging: anyone could phonetically write Japanese using these number combinations. Seeing girls quickly punching out text messages on public pay phones was a common sight by the mid-1990s, and this kind of mobile communication soon filtered through the rest of society. It was an effect Ito calls "trickle up phenomenon," and it ultimately led to the multifunctional mobile phones that flood the market today.

The first shots of the mobile phone revolution were fired in 1994 when regulations were changed to make it easier to buy mobile phones, rather than renting them. Two years later, phone carrier NTT DoCoMo released the first Personal Handy-phone System (PHS) which, unlike cellular phones, was restricted to urban areas and domestic calls. The smaller radius of phone coverage was no problem for someone trying to get in touch with buddies from class! Less coverage also meant a lower price, and a lower price, in turn, meant schoolgirls could afford the handsets—or get their parents to buy them. While not specifically designed for schoolgirls, it was a perfect fit for their social butterfly needs. "The mobile phone was revolutionary," says Ito. "Until then teens couldn't really talk that much to each other in class and their parents monitored the land-line at home. The mobile phone enabled them to finally have private conversations."


The mobile phone, known in Japan as a keitai or keitai denwa (literally "portable phone"), is a private device, especially in Japan where people use it more for texting than talking. The shape itself makes it intimate because it fits in the pad of the hand. "Teens changed the mobile phone demographic from a business demographic that needed portable phones in order to be reachable for work," says Ito, "to an everyone demographic." For teens looking for some semblance of privacy in the cramped houses they shared with their parents, the mobile phone was a godsend. It not only offered privacy, but mobility, making it possible to be connected with friends 24-7.

New features were introduced in response to what was happening on the street. Sharp, for example, released the first keitai with built-in digital camera to capitalize on the schoolgirl photo craze and sticker picture boom of the late 1990s. And when digital snaps proved to be a hit, companies created small printers for mobile phone pics and even kiosks where kids could print out phone photos.


In 1999, NTT DoCoMo launched iMode, which brought the internet and email to the mobile phone. Email made it possible to send longer messages than the limited character texting of the time, and schoolgirls, of course, were the first to respond. And where they led, others followed. "In the late nineties," Ito says, "text messaging was associated with girls' culture. But it spread from there." Though men were originally hesitant to use text messaging because it had such a strong schoolgirl connotation, it is now indispensable across the spectrum of users. However, it is still girls that fuel its use, according to Ito's data 100 percent of middle and high school girls who own mobile phones use email. It is schoolgirls Japan has to thank for the proliferation of mobile phones, and for the many now standard functions‚ especially for the spread of the mobile phone-based internet.

With so many young shopping-mad women tied to their mobile phones, tech-savvy retailers began to push chic boutiques through handset-based websites. While the PC internet is largely dominated by male users in Japan, the mobile internet has long been a female refuge of sorts, with young Japanese women more likely to access the internet through their handsets than a computer. A company called Mavael even released a computer keyboard, called the "Keiboard," that was shaped like a mobile phone in the vain hope of aiding the migration from mobile to personal computer. Other companies like Branding, the company behind the Tokyo Girls Collection, realized that the keitai is where it's at — and launched in summer 2000. Branding's data shows that in 2008, 65 percent of girls between their high teens and early twenties shopped online via their mobile phones. Their site features fashion from Shibuya's hottest shops, allowing girls from across the country to buy the latest fashions through their phone. In short, the site brings trendy city trends to fashion conscious girls stuck in the sticks.


Brian Ashcraft is a Senior Contributing Editor at His work has appeared in Wired Magazine, Popular Science, The Japan Times, T3 and design publication Metropolis Magazine. He authored Arcade Mania, a book Warren Ellis called, "A fascinating, funny, and sharp-eyed look at the place where they play-test the future."


Featuring interviews with numerous celebrities, pundits and students, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential traces their impact of Japanese schoolgirls on movies, music, magazines, fine art, anime, manga, fashion, technology, and more. You can purchase the book here.