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Mobiles and the Transformation of the Japanese Family

The final day of Mobile Media 2007 has started, and the opening keynote today is by Misa Matsuda (the other scheduled keynote speaker, Shin Dong Kim, unfortunately couldn't make it here). Parent-child relationships are now mediated by mobile technologies, and this provides and insight to the complex relationship between technologies and society overall. Japan is at the forefront of this, as it has the highest up-take of mobile Internet access, which may be seen as foreshadowing the future for mobile technology overall. This began with DoCoMo's introduction of i-mode phones, and is enhanced now also by GPS, data transmission, and music download capabilities, for example. Japanese society's transformation may therefore be indicative of future global changes, too.

There are some unique circumstances, however: the earlier boom of pagers which made Japanese teens very familiar with text messaging, the slow diffusion of competing media (such as PC-based Internet), and the industrial structure of service and carriage providers in Japan - the Japanese industry never employed a GSM-based and vertically integrated model. A case study of mobile Internet in Japan may therefore be not as indicative of global trends as one may expect, therefore.

The mobile phone in Japan is often referred to as a keitai (portable) or keitai denwa (portable telephone). The elimination of denwa in common parlance foreshadowed the subsequent development of the mobile phone, away from telephony and towards a multi-functional mobile technology. Keitai are now used especially to manage family interactions between parents and between parents and children; the keitai acts as a binding agent, and transforms the family towards individualisation as well as communicativity - while at the same time also enabling users to exercise a choice of whom they speak to and interact with. At the same time, the pressures of modern life have also served to reduce face-to-face communication, and Japanese families now make optimal use of keitai to make up for such loss. Keitai enable the organisation and planning of co-presence, as well as acting as an alternative for face-to-face interaction; they also enable things to be said which may not be able to be said in a face-to-face situation.

Such use of keitai in family contexts has also led to the roll-out of mobile phone ranges addressed directly at kids; some 30% of fifth- and sixth-graders, and some 65% of junior high school students, now have mobile phones. Indeed, entering junior high school is an important dividing line, as the child's role in and independence from the family changes significantly at this point. Commuting to school is usually the key reason for kids at elementary school age to be given keitai; this is a result of public perceptions of deteriorating safety in Japan. Indeed, DoCoMo offers alarm services to be used by kids on their phones - when activated, they sound loud alarm tones, automatically activate the phone camera, and report the phone's location to the network or the parent - enabling parents to track the movements of the phone and to see what it sees. (This necessarily only indicates the location of the phone itself, of course.)

Such surveillance of kids by parents is to be seen in the first place as an act of care, of course, but at the same time also controls the child's actions; by carrying a keitai, the child's mum is always 'in the pocket', and is able to exercise the role of motherhood even remotely at any point. This may reinforce gender roles, but could also lead to a better sharing of responsibilities between both parents. At the same time, keitai in all of their functions can also be seen as providing kids with more direct access to information (e.g. on the Internet) and communication with others, and this has been a cause for some concern as well. Such communication has also affected parents themselves - they are now contacted more frequently even to discuss unimportant matters: mum is always in the pocket. Mobile use, at the same time, is a tool for the reflexive construction of the self for the kids; it contributes to a rite of passage by constantly indicating the role of the child in relation to family and friends. The constant connection to family through mobile phones may be a problem here - will children addicted to their keitai ever graduate from the family?

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