“Japanese Youths Engaging with Mobile ICTs: Looking ahead from the Past Ten Years” @ ICA Mobile Preconference 2013

I discussed the engagement of young people with mobile communications At the ICA Mobile Preconference in London on June 16, 20131. In my presentation, I focused on ‘constant connectivity’ via mobile ICTs within the Japanese context.  Drawing on my ethnographic research on Japanese engagement with media and ICT in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area since 2000, I presented a case study of some of the world’s most advanced mobile ICT users from a non-Western perspective.

Mobile communications in Japan

Since 1999, most mobile phones produced in Japan have been equipped packaged with the i-mode service which gives access to the internet. Hence, for over ten years, we have been able to watch television and video, listen to music, play games, take photographs and access the internet on our mobile phones. People in their late twenties have grown up adept at manipulating their mobile phones (even without looking at them). In Japanese, we describe this phenomenon as oyayubibunka (literally, thumb culture). As they tend to communicate with each other in writing rather than speech, the mobile phone is called kei-tai (portable device) rather than ‘phone’. By using mobile social media applications, they access texts and emails and consume information, images, and culture – not just from Japan but from international sources.


Constant connectivity

In one interview I conducted, Akari, a nineteen year-old female college student, told me:


Akari: I put my mobile phone on vibration mode under the pillow when I’m asleep.

Researcher: Don’t you wake up when you receive messages in the middle of the night?

Akari: I do. But I don’t even remember opening or replying to the messages.



Akari is typical of the children and young people I interviewed in Japan – they NEVER switch off their mobile phones, and always keep them close by, even when asleep. They check their Line, Facebook, Twitter and email accounts via their mobile phones in bed before they sleep. Through the night they continue to receive messages via social media through their devices. They frequently check their mobile phones and sometimes reply during the night, although some may not remember this engagement the next morning.


Some individuals take their mobile engagement a stage further by continuing mobile engagement even as they take their baths.


Understanding Japanese youth and mobile communications

In order to understand the social and cultural impact, I then investigated  the concept of a “fulltime intimate community” (Nakajima, Himeno and Yoshii, 1999) and a Japanese emic concept, kuuki (Yamamoto, 1977).


An early study by Ichiro Nakajima, Keiichi Himeno and Hiroaki Yoshii (1999), suggests that mobile phones create what they call a ‘full-time intimate community’ with close friends, boyfriends and girlfriends. It claims that:


People who live in the city, who have gained their autonomy and have broken the hold of the village type of community, create a ‘full-time intimate community’, where they reinforce their connectivity with their close peer groups whom they frequently meet, and where they feel a 24 hour a day psychological togetherness. (Nakajima et al., 1999, p. 90)


Many researchers working in this field, both inside and outside Japan, have borrowed this concept of the ‘full-time intimate community’ and applied it to different social and cultural contexts. The general consensus is that, as mobile phones with internet access and smartphones become more embedded in people’s everyday lives, people have more access to social media on the go, and this has encouraged a deepening of the ‘full-time intimate community’ in Japanese society.


The cultural and social significance of this may be understood by considering the notion of kuuki.


Communication scholar Yoichi Ito (2009) had described kuuki, which literally means air in Japanese, as the atmosphere of a situation to which all those involved are expected to pay respect.


At the heart of the kuuki process is some kind of mechanism that aggravates a situation in a way that those involved in the issue are compelled to comply with the position put forth.…In relatively collectivist cultures like Japan, in which harmony is privileged, those who are insensitive to kuuki and say or do things that create disharmony tend to be disliked by other group members and are alienated or isolated. (Ito, 2009, pp. 573-74; italics in the original)


In the remainder of my presentation, I examined data from my ethnographic research on Japanese youth engagement with mobile phones including social media by referring to the concept of kuuki.  I thus investigated constant connectivity as a universal phenomenon and then looked at its cultural specificity within the Japanese context.



Japanese funding for the research was provided in part by Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology), The Yoshida Hideo Memorial Foundation, KDDI Foundation and the Telecommunications Advancement Foundation.



  1. Takahashi, T. Japanese Youths Engaging with Mobile ICTs: Looking ahead from the Past Ten Years”. ICA 2013 Communications and Technology Division: Mobile Communications 10th Anniversary Pre-Conference Workshop, London, UK, June 2013.



Ito, Y. (2009) ‘Japanese kuuki theory’ in S. W. Littlejohn and K. Foss (eds) Encyclopedia of Communication Theory (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), pp. 573-574.

Nakajima, I., Himeno K. and Yoshii, H. (1999) ‘Ido-denwa riyono fukyu to sono shakaiteki-imi’ [‘Diffusion of cellular phones and PHS and its social meanings’], Joho Tsuushin Gakkai-shi, 16 (3), 79-92.

Yamamoto, S. (1977) Kuuki no kenkyu [A study of ‘Kuuki’] (Tokyo: Bungeishunjuu).

Takahashi, T (forthcoming) Youth, Social Media and Connectivity in Japan. In Seargeant, P. and C. Tagg (eds) “The Language of Social Media: Community and Identity on the Internet”. Palgrave.

About Toshie Takahashi

Toshie Takahashi is Professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society, as well as the Institute for Al and Robotics,Waseda University, Tokyo. She was the former faculty Associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. She has held visiting appointments at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge as well as Columbia University. She conducts cross-cultural and trans-disciplinary research on the social impact of robots as well as the potential of AI for Social Good. 【早稲田大学文学学術院教授。元ハーバード大学バークマンクライン研究所ファカルティ・アソシエイト。現在、人工知能の社会的インパクトやロボットの利活用などについて、ハーバード大学やケンブリッジ大学と国際共同研究を行っている。東京オリンピック・パラリンピック競技大会組織委員会テクノロジー諮問委員会委員。】
This entry was posted in Culture and Communication, Kuuki, Mobile Media, Youth and Media. Bookmark the permalink.