Determinist Nature of Japanese Ketei Culture

Project team

Alison Carbonel, Pedro Leitao, Melina Brossard, Chul Ki Lee

Project description

In the early 90’s, developed nations across the globe engaged in policy making and measures that were designed to foster and incentivize the creation of new technologies that would ultimately create an array of new forms of media for the delivery of information to the masses. As stated on Wikipedia, “the National Information Infrastructure (NII) was a proposed, advanced, seamless web of public and private communications networks, interactive services, interoperable hardware and software, computers, databases, and consumer electronics to put vast amounts of information at users’ fingertips.” ( Specifically, the NII or Information Super Highway was an American term used as a buzz word by the Clinton Administration, however, and perhaps as a response to the well publicized American Initiative, other developed nations also put forward their own versions of similar initiatives that aimed to accomplish identical goals. Due to the choice of terms used to describe the NII, we identified what it seemed to be a technological deterministic tendency suggesting that through technology new forms of social relations at all levels would emerge. Eighteen years later, the evidence undeniably suggests that our culture has evolved in many areas and that technology is intrinsically connected to new cultural aspects of society. Such evidence is particularly noticeable in the ways we shop, study, do our jobs or even participate in local politics. What is not evident is that technology has played a deterministic role in cultural change; in fact, we became specifically interested in the opposite argument which suggests that culture has determined the course and development of many technologies and communication services available today.

In order to investigate our cultural deterministic suspicions, we focused on Japanese Society and its mobile industry. Japan’s mobile industry presented us with a vast set of evidence that seemed unique to Japanese Society and, more importantly, it seemed to support the notion of culture driving technological change. As a result of our curiosity and initial research, we asked the following question:

What role has cultural and social aspects in Japan, especially amongst the youth, played in shaping the Japanese mobile industry?

What became evident to us is that aspects of culture and technology are parts of a complex paradigm and that determinism actually occurs but not in one specific direction. The relation between culture and technology is perhaps best described as of symbiotic nature. As argued by Raquell Hill in her 2003 Paper, A Mobile Phone of One’s Own: Japan’s “Generation M”, “distinctly Japanese innovations have made it a symbol of much that Japanese people value and desire. Furthermore, the phenomenon is reciprocal for, just as youth are re-appropriating the mobile phone and communication, the mobile phone is also redefining Japanese youth.” (1) Furthermore, as emphasized in a research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global

Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, October 8th and 9th 2004, mobile industries and markets are influenced by factors that go well beyond the boundaries of culture and technology. For instance, geographic factors also play an important role and have deterministic force upon technology, “Countries with small land mass (e.g., most European countries) and more densely populated residential settlements (e.g., Japan) are able to speed up the adoption of wireless communications because it is easier to set up the wireless infrastructure. More effort, expense and collaboration is needed to establish such systems in wide areas like the U.S.” (2) Finally, we must not ignore the work of Misuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist who has done extensive work on culture aspects of the Japanese Mobile Society. Despite Ito’s well researched ideas on cultural and social aspects influencing mobile services and devices in Japan, as a group, we failed to initially understand that Misuko Ito’s work does not support our claim of culture determining technology in the Japanese Mobile Industry; it does not support that claim because it was never intended to do so. As expressed in her own words, “it is not the technology itself that embodies this uniqueness, but rather a constellation of characteristics that must be viewed ecologically. In this, I am not ruling out that other countries may exhibit similar characteristics or adoption trajectories. If nothing else, the international attention on Japanese mobile phone use guarantees that these developments will be the result of international conversation, comparison, and transnational technology development. The characteristics that I have described as personal, portable, and pedestrian are likely to find resonance in an increasingly linked set of international mobile cultures that both draw from and depart from the paradigms incubated in Japan.(3)

Conclusively, it is fair to say that through our brief analyses of the subject, we arrived to a new perspective with more important questions: The idea of cultural determinism vs. technological determinism is far too simplistic. This is a complex topic and evidence suggests that it can never be fully understood from a single prism of culture or technology. No single factor exists in a vacuum and political, economic and geographic factors to mention a few must be part of this dialogue. In light of this inherent complexity, we believe that a better question to ask would have to include a comparative study between two countries and careful attention would have to be given to several factors. We were particularly aware of this when Dan Perkel, our instructor, posed the question on the Verizon Wireless Commercial: Why wouldn’t the Verizon Commercial represent an aspect of American Culture, a culture of business perhaps, but rather an expression of technological determinism as we suggested? Dan’s question epitomizes the fact that in this domain what seems technological at a given time it can also be constructed as cultural or political. Overall, this was an enlightening experience for us as it revealed that a far more complex work of study in this field is required to answer even the simplest of questions.

(1) – Hill, Raquel. 2003. A Mobile Phone of One’s Own: Japan’s “Generation M”. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 5: 178-194

(2) – Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Araba Sey, 2004. The Mobile Communication Society. A cross – cultural  analysis of  available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology.

(3) – Mizuko Ito, University of Southern California, Keio University, 2004. Personal Portable Pedestrian: Lessons from Japanese Mobile Phone Use.


Funk, Jeffrey L. 2000. The Mobile Internet Market: Lessons from Japan’s i-mode system. In The E-Business Transformation: Sector Developments and Policy Implications. September 26.

Related URL is following:

•Conference URL:

•Paper URL:


This conference paper introduces brief status of Japan mobile Internet market. Author argues that the reason the majority of mobile Internet users are youth could be attributed to the fact that younger people spend more time away from their home or office than older people and accept lower richness of mobile Internet due to unfamiliarity of those places. This paper suggest that the pervasiveness presence of mobile Internet make people to use more email than other contents. It maybe sounds like a little bit technological deterministic, but it is not true. For suggestion to other countries, author maintains that content service provider have to focus on young people; author point out that they consider reach important and want interesting information which they can enjoy for killing time while waiting or riding public transportation. This suggestion implies that the needs on specific cultural and social context could shaped the mobile Internet industry in Japan.

Gottlieb, Nanette, and Mark McLelland, eds. 2003. Japanese cybercultures. London; New York: Routledge.

This book is available at UC Berkeley Library – Main (Gardner) Stacks.

In the book. following chapters are closely related to our research.

Chapter 1. The Internet in Japan (Nanette Gottlieb and Mark McLelland)

Chapter 2. Individualization, individuality, interiority, and the Internet: Japanese university students and e-mail (Brain J. McVeigh)


This book covers various topics on Japanese cybercultures, including popular culture, sexuality, politics and religion. The fact that Japanese people uses technology in their own way can be observed. In chapter 1, the author provides an overview of Japanese internet including mobile culture. They mention that tendency of people, such as hesitance of using credit cards online, made creative local use of Internet. In addition, In chapter 2, McVeigh points out that some products are designed to fulfill distinctive needs for individuals in Japan. For example, they usually spend much time for commuting therefore want to do something interesting in their own personal space. Furthermore, author mention that it is not just needs but basis of own culture.

Hill, Raquel. 2003. A Mobile Phone of One’s Own: Japan’s “Generation M”. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 5: 178-194

Related URL:

Paper URL:


This paper introduces an in depth look, from an insider’s perspective, and creates at picture of how the mobile phone, or keitai, embodies the pulse of youth culture in Japan. It reveals the ways in which the mobile phone functions as an icon for the youth of contemporary Japan. The mobile phone invites analysis because of the increasingly conspicuous space it occupies on the urban landscape and the fact that it has, after all, become no ordinary communication tool. Distinctly Japanese innovations have made it a symbol of much that Japanese people value and desire. Furthermore, the phenomenon is reciprocal for, just as youth are re-appropriating the mobile phone and communication, the mobile phone is also redefining Japanese youth. Thus this paper will argue that the rise and transformation of the mobile phone from business tool to youth icon reveals more than a fascinating glimpse of Japanese popular culture; it also highlights major shifts in the fabric of Japanese society that can lead to a deeper understanding of its’ youth.

Funk, Jeffrey L. 2005. The Future of the Mobile Phone Internet: an Analysis of Technological Trajectories and Lead Users in the Japanese Market. Technology In Society: 69-83

Related URL:

Paper URL:


This paper focuses on mobile phones and uses the concepts of technological aspects in leading users in predicting the future of the mobile phone Internet, which has seen substantial growth in Japan and Korea and to a lesser extent in Europe, the US and other parts of Asia. The author interviewed more than 100 firms that provide services, content, and technologies in the Japanese (and to a lesser extent in other mobile Internet markets) and asked them about their market, the technologies they supply or that impact on their market, and their lead users (both intermediate and final users). The author used this information to forecast the evolution of the market in seven content applications: multi-media mail, phones as portable entertainment players, mobile marketing for retailers and manufacturers, multichannel shopping, navigation, phones for obtaining tickets and money, and mobile intranet applications. By doing this, the author creates a better understanding of how the mobile phone industry is evolving.

Ito, M. (2004). Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: mobile phones in Japanese life. The Southern California Digital Culture Group. Los Angeles: Annenberg Center for Communication.


The book first considers the social, cultural, and historical context of keitai development, including its beginnings in youth pager use in the early 1990s. It then discusses the virtually seamless integration of keitai use into everyday life, contrasting it to the more escapist character of Internet use on the PC. (Please refer to abstract for some used quotes)

Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Araba Sey, 2004. The Mobile Communication Society. A cross – cultural  analysis of  available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology.


This is an analytical overview that focuses on social uses of wireless communication technology. This work was particularly important, because of its empirical and comprehensive nature: it compares several countries across a multitude of factors such as political, cultural, economic, geographic and technological aspects. It does so with supported quantitative evidence. (Please refer to abstract for some used quotes)

Other sources

Cocoarmani. 2007. The British and News Paper. December 19. Flickr.

comScore, Inc. 2007. Mobile Phone Web Users Nearly Equal PC Based Internet Users in Japan. comScore, Inc.

Downen, Doug. 2008. Cell phone vending machine. November 13. Flickr.

Henry. 2005. Irresistible. December 8. Flickr.

hiromy. 2006. Keitai girls. June 27. Flickr.

Looi, Mun Keat. 2007. Jihanki: keitai ok. March 30. Flickr.

Pettersen, Jasmine. 2005. (no title). July 23. Flickr.

Sony Corporation. FeliCa General Catalog.

Stacy. 2008. keitai, etc. July 24. Flickr.

The Yomiuri Shimbun. The Daily Yomiuri advertising rates.

TU-KA. 2009. CM Hamasaki Ayumi Tu ka EZ. July 7.

Verizon. 2008. Verizon Dead Zone Commercial. October 17.

Wikipedia contributors. 無線呼び出し – Wikipedia.

———. Galápagos syndrome – Wikipedia.

———. i-mode – Wikipedia.

———. Japanese mobile phone culture – Wikipedia.

yangkuo. 2008. All-in-One Good Luck Charm. April 20. Flickr.

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