Concerning the Smartphone in Japan

Obtaining a telephone not the easy matter it is in most other countries, and often entails waiting for four of five years unless one has recourse to the black market…Telephone are still so scarce in private houses that it is an unwritten law that when anyone is lucky or rich enough to obtain one the use of it shall be extended to his neighbours. John Morris, in Traveller from Tokyo, 1945


Times have changed, we no longer have a five year wait, or a need for the black market, nor do we need to share with our neighbours, but the Japanese love affair with the phone continues unabated. When I first arrived in Tokyo in 2012, I couldn’t help but notice how many smartphones or Sumātofon were used by everyday commuters.  Before I knew about the differences between Tokyo-ites and Osakan Japanese, I had divided Japan into different sorts of Sumātofon-jin or smartphone people.  Let me introduce you to them.

The Priority Seat Stow-away: I always feel sorry this one.  This is the salaryman, who has left work, maybe early, and has an important call he knows he has to take, either from his boss or his wife.  He will be found sitting on the Priority seats, looking nervous, Sumātofon in hand (which shall be an Android, never an iPhone – too expensive) waiting for the call, and will pretend to play games as he does.

The Proud Porn Viewer: You remember when I said people in Japan no longer have to share the phone with our neighbours?  Well maybe I was wrong, as the case of the Proud Porn Viewer clearly demonstrates.  He is usually a salaryman on his way to work or on the way back from it; in fact I have never properly observed this species except during the hours of 7am to 10am and 10pm to midnight.  They also found most commonly in certain places, the Yamanote Line on way to Akihabara and back, or on the way to Nippombashi in Osaka. Anywhere Otaku culture can be found. Yet during these times he can be found, quite openly staring at his Sumātofon watching porn.  If you sit next to him you get a free show.  Good Times, ne?

The Emergency Make-up Checker: Do you need to know if a Japanese woman truly loves you?  Right find out if she is one of these people.  The Emergency Make-up Checker is rare breed.  I always find her on the priority seats, usually on a Friday or Saturday, between the hours of 6pm and 8pm.  Her usual habit is to put on her makeup, on the train, as she goes to meet her boyfriend, using the reverse camera option to make sure she looks OK.  This task evidently requires also sitting on the priority seats, maybe they are the only seats that are empty, with the right lighting during that time.

The Annoying Gaijin Tourist:   He’s never been on a JR Train before, and yes he is usually a male.  He doesn’t know it’s not really allowed to take photos, or that you are drunk, and probably don’t want your photo taken, or that yes you are British, and yes have lived here for almost 18 months. This one, I suggest you observe at a distance. But sometimes, this species of Smartphone user gets lost, can’t find his territory or his herd, and as such times it is both safe and advisable to approach.  Prepare your best ‘PEACE’ sign for photos though.

It must also be understood that all Japanese Sumātofon users have to hold the phone a foot away from their eyes, and can never look at you or their feet, as bad things would happen if they looked up away from the screen.


The Daily Shock of Re-Entry…

“She experiences the small daily shock of reentry that every foreigner in Tokyo knows.  A sudden, pulse-quickening awareness of the obvious: Here I am, in Japan.  Every morning it takes her by surprise – the sudden consciousness of profound difference… Even after years and decades have passed, you never get over the excitement, the unique daily thrill, of living as a foreigner in Japan.” – Richard Lloyd Parry

 No, you didn’t dream it.  It may seem like yesterday was an aircon and alcohol fuelled phantasm, but it’s true. You really do live in Japan. It is a truly odd experience, and one that, as Parry notes, certainly doesn’t go away.  You are here…in Japan.

It really shouldn’t strike you as odd.  You got up yesterday, up from your futon, turned on NHK to watch the asadora – ‘morning drama’, a fifteen minute long programme documenting a life of kawaii gairu – a cute girl of Japan.  That  wouldn’t happen unless I were in Japan.  You cleared away last nights chu-hi, and bieru cans, placing them into coloured coded bags for the recycling people to process them easily, and that certainly wouldn’t happen back in the home country.

You returned to the television at around 9:55 (not 09, Japan doesn’t  seem to use the twenty-four hour clock, lunch shall be eaten at 0:00) to hear the most uncanny of things, music you know from TV magazine shows back home being used to introduce the morning exercise routine for those at home.  And that wouldn’t happen unless you were in Japan.  You then went to the conbini, the local convenience store to pay your gas, electricity, and water bills and latest purchases from Amazon.  You notice that the seasonal beer, a variation on a rich malt is now on sale.  And that wouldn’t happen unless you were in Japan.

You returned to your apartment, waving to your neighbours –  konnichwa – her kids playing with what is for you, something not seen since the eighties, a skateboard.  And that wouldn’t happen unless you were in Japan. 

Once in a while, you get a noisy alarm from your mobile phone, the siren sounds – listen to me, listen to me, listen me – an earthquake, a five point something magnitude is predicted nearby.  You locate your passport, zairyu ‘resident’ card and inkan (necessary for signing official documents) just in case an evacuation is ordered.  It isn’t but, you remain glued to the TV until the troubles passes.  And that definitely wouldn’t happen back in the home country.

You begin to wonder, why, why does this still disturb me.  You have been here for over a year, and yet others assure me that this feeling, which isn’t entirely negative, never goes away.  You of course, have your theories as to why.  For the western foreigner at least, everything about Japan emphasizes difference.  The buildings are taller than back in the old country (and have to be earthquake-proofed), trains generally run on time, unless there’s been a suicide, making you feel guilty when you complain the train is late.  Alcohol can be consumed in the street, and is often cheaper than drinks of the opposite type. These differences makes everything that is similar, somehow uncanny, as if there was something wrong with an escalator that goes up and downstairs (just like it does back home), or that a red light still means stop or dangerAfter all, this is Japan; surely things don’t happen the same way here?