Winter 2004-2005

You Go Girl, Japanese Style
by Lucy Haagen

Japanese girls in Fukuoka enjoying mobile phone communication

I've always believed that fairytale princesses reveal much about the societies whose collective values they reflect and reinforce. With this in mind, on the eve of my departure for a week in Japan, I went in search of the archetypical Japanese princess, whom I found in two contrasting realms: 18th century folklore and 21st century pop lyrics. In both realms, Princess Peony inhabits a walled garden where she tends flowers of exquisite beauty, a loveliness reflected in her person and her retinue of attendants.

As the lyrics of a popular Japanese band confirm, "All girls, In a secret garden, Proceed to become beautiful."1

But like Rapunzel, Peony cannot be saved from worldly (i.e., male) intrusion forever. One day while strolling near a garden pool, she loses her footing and falls in. Conveniently, a handsome Samurai materializes just long enough to save her from drowning. Smitten by her vanished rescuer, Ms. Peony languishes only to be revived by her troupe of loyal and resourceful peers. With the efficiency of a well-organized sorority, the sisterhood takes charge. They deliver coded messages telling the Samurai of Peony's love, and advise him on how to win her father's approval. Soon everyone is celebrating the royal wedding and the start of an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Not surprisingly, in the iconography of Japanese tattoos, Peony symbolizes wealth and good fortune.

No longer contained by garden walls, Japan's modern princesses, joshikosei, dominate the urban landscape. Fukuoka, the trendy capital of Kyushu Prefecture, proved fertile ground for observing what Sci-Fi maestro William Gibson called Japan's "Mobile Girls." I saw them everywhere - in underground malls, subways, cafes, schoolyards, and sidewalks, outfitted in sailor blouses, short pleated skirts and baggy socks walking arm in arm, chattering, reading/ sending messages, blushing, flirting, snapping or viewing pictures and thumbing keypads furiously. At the vortex of this multi-tasking was the keitai, or Japanese mobile-phone (which translates as "mobile" with no reference to phone).

Fukuoka schoolgirls text messaging at lunchtime
Fukuoka schoolgirls text messaging at lunchtime

Like the intricately decorated fans of fairytale princesses, Keitais are more than mechanical devices. Like the folding fan tucked in the folds of a kimono, the keitai is the ultimate portable accessory, a fashion statement, dramatic prop, social screen, but most powerfully, a medium for covert communication and creating an intimate community. According to Yuichi Kogure, who teaches a class on keitai culture at Tokyo Toita Women's College, "You take your world with you when you have your keitai in your hand."

Joshikoseis were not the keitai's target market. Originally designed and marketed as business-oriented devices, teenage girls appropriated the technology for their personal communications, and in so doing, co-opted the technological and aesthetic evolution of Japan's most successful digital product. Mobile texting, in particular, was an innovation with origins in pager culture in which girls sent numeric codes to pagers from home phones and payphones. In a study of youth mobile media cultures, Kenichi Fujimoto describes "the girls' pager revolution as a technology-linked paradigm shift, where certain cultural values became embedded in mobile technologies that have now infiltrated the general population."2
Japan Media Review reports that 70 million Japanese, or 55 percent of the population have signed up for Internet access on their mobile phones, an increase of 300 percent since 2000. In the immediate aftermath of web access, protective Japanese adults registered a collective alarm: Enjokosai, which literally means "compensated dating." Like courtesans and Geishas of old, the urban legend goes, mobile girls develop sexual liaisons with affluent businessmen to fund their keitai lifestyle. Advertising their availability by punk fashion, these "ko-gals" use their mobile phones to arrange illicit liaisons. While teen prostitution is not unknown in Japan, it is both rare and appears not to be facilitated by mobile phone use. In fact, keitais play an important role in making teens safe.

Cyber-cafe in Fukuoka

At a busy hamburger restaurant in Fukuoka, I observed keitai dating, or go-kon, a mysterious ritual whose intricacies had to be explained by my Japanese hostess. Four boys and four girls were facing each other across a table. Talking was confined to whispered messages delivered boy to boy and girl to girl. Under the table (which I couldn't see), everyone was furiously typing on their keitais, showing messages to their neighbors. The closest direct girl/boy contact occurred at the end of the evening, a shy exchange of phone numbers. Other keitai social rituals are documented in "Keitai Log," a web diary published online by a group of college students researching the role of Keitai in Japanese society. A recent diarist observed that Keitai culture actually strengthens ties between parents and children. She reported that GPS systems are now standard keitai features, and that many high school girls relieve academic stress by text-messaging their mothers during the long school day.

Mizuko Ito perfectly characterizes the impact of keitai on the urban teen landscape. She writes: "Keitai-wired youth are in persistent but lightweight contact with a small number of intimates, with whom they are expected to be available unless they are sleeping or working. Because of this portable, virtual peer space, the city is no longer a space of urban anonymity." (Japan Media Review, 12/04/04).

As with pagers, the constraints of the keitai keypad have spurred the creation of new modes of communicating. Gyaru-moji, or "girl talk," mixes Japanese syllables, numbers, cartoon icons and Greek characters into a hieroglyphic script that eludes deciphering by the uninitiated. The fact that it takes twice as long to enter as regular text adds to its popularity as a form of artistic expression and social definition. Recently, young girls are taking advantage of increased bandwidth to handwrite their gyaru-moji messages, which are photographed and sent by email, further showcasing the personality and talent of the sender.

Ironically, the digital revolution of global dimension fueled by Japan's modern princesses is not bringing the wider world to them. Observers of trends in education note the infrequent use of the World Wide Web for formal learning in Japanese schools. The hybrid, scaled down web of Keitai culture provides a canvas for creation, communication and community-reinforcing entertainment - music, videos and even novels are frequently downloaded. Collectively these enrich, intensify and circumscribe an intimate social realm that has been compared to a walled garden, not too different from that graced by Princess Peony and her posse.

It is ironic that Japan's "mobile girls" are not themselves using technology to access a brave new world. But if your walled garden was lively, peaceful, congenial, colorful and subject to the occasional frisson of male intrusion, would you want to leave it?


1 NURIKO, Takarano/CLAMP Campus Detectives (CLAMP gakuen tanteidan), Song: Peony Pink, Date unknown.

2 Fujimoto, Kenichi. "The Anti-Ubiquitous 'Territory Machine'-The Third Period Paradigm: From 'Girls' Pager Revolution' to 'Mobile Aesthetics'." in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, edited by M. Ito, D. Okabe, and M. Matsuda. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).

Lucy Haagen, a CTCNet board member, muses about technology and society in Durham, NC.


Fascinating article, Lucy. Text messaging is also extraordinarily popular among children and youth here in the Philippines -- which describes itself now as the text messaging nation -- and where, among other things, it is said that text messaging led to the fall of a President. There is a text messaging literacy project sponsored by Seameo-Innotech in Manila that may reveal yet another promise of text messaging.

Posted by: David Rosen at January 25, 2005 04:18 AM
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