Shibuya is one of the noisiest and most colorful neighborhoods in the great urban sprawl of Tokyo. In the central area, near Shibuya train station, neon-lit skyscrapers and mammoth video screens tower over thousands of teens and twenty-somethings, children of Japan’s post-bubble gloom.
Against a dark dystopian skyline, the kids in Shibuya are coming of age in a world halfway between the present and the future. Think “Blade Runner” meets J.D. Salinger. On any given weekend, Shibuya is the hub for tens of thousands of young people in a lifestyle that is held together with the “Keitai”.
“Keitai” is the Japanese term for cell phone, which means literally “to bring or carry”. As everyone knows by now, it is the tool of choice for young people here to access everything that is meaningful to them.
In a country where everything else is growing bleaker – rising divorce rates, low birthrates, an aging population, an endless economic recession – the keitai grows stronger. Young people in Japan used to come of age in a society with strong institutions( the educational system, the company, the nuclear family unit). Today, the Shibuya kids see these social institutions crumbling around them and the only thing to replace it is the keitai. It is the one technological tool they have to reconstruct the reality they have inherited.
It’s not the Internet or is it?
Japanese have always put a special value in ceremony and ritual. Local teenagers create deviant social rituals to replace the ones from an old social order that appears to be broken. One of the most striking examples of the new rituals that kids are creating is in Harajuku, a few minutes north of Shibuya Station.
Each weekend scores of kids gather for “cos pre”, a Japanization of the words “costume play”. Boys and girls pose in otherworldly, homemade costumes right next to one of the oldest and most scared shrines of the Shinto religion.
“My keitai is what’s most important,” said Himei-san, a teenage convenience store clerk who came out for cos play. Like many teens, Himei accesses mail and web sites from her Sony Ericsson handset regularly, but she doesn’t necessarily think of it as the Internet. Himei also adds that there is one function that she hardly ever uses her cell phone for: voice calls.
Himei’s keitai habits are indicative of two major trends among young people. The first is that many Japanese teens are experiencing actual access to Internet technologies – such as HTTP sites and email – through their cell phone before they do so on a personal computer. This means that they aren’t inclined to make the disappointing comparison between the capabilities of the wired Web and mobile Internet services. Operators have also avoided this by not promoting new services as “the Internet” but instead offering them as features that are part of any keitai.
Himei’s second habit is equally revealing: she almost never uses her keitai for voice calls. Teens increasingly find that message and data services are the most useful ones. Indeed among younger i-mode users, phone charges from data packet billing normally equals or surpasses voice call charges. It is, however, difficult to pin the rise of data and decline of voice on one single explanation. Certainly the lower cost of messaging and site access is part of it.
Not forgetting, of course, the long hours spent in public transportation and the appeal of written communication.
Leading the followers
The Shibuya kids surprised everyone with their quick, widespread adoption of mobile data application. In a short time they unexpectedly redirected the whole course of the mobile Internet in Japan. When mobile services were launched in 1999, operators and manufacturers assumed that salary men were the best target customers. And they assumed that practical business applications, such as mobile banking, would be the most lucrative opportunities.
But young people took up different types of usage and this altered the products and services that followed. The Shibuya kids established the position of trendsetters that needed to be prioritized by any company hoping to succeed in the mobile space. By paying attention to kids, the operators and manufacturers got an early warning that business users were the wrong focus and they were able to recover from some mistakes in mobile Internet service introduction.
“Young people have a way of taking a technology and finding a different application for it than was originally intended,” according to Masataka Yoshikawa of Hakuhodo Inc., an advertising company in Tokyo.
Physical design is another area where young Japanese have literally helped reshape the mobile Internet industry. The first i-mode handset models that were introduced to the marketplace were thin oblong phones with small screens intended to fit in a business man’s shirt pocket. Manufacturers that entered the market late – such as NEC and Sony – were forced to do something different by the operators. So they created fold-up handsets.
It turned out that these fold-up models quickly attracted the young female users, since they fit easily into handbags and featured larger screens that made it easier to write mails (a more common application than voice calls). The mainstream public soon followed this trend and fold-up handsets became the top selling models for i-mode and other mobile Internet services.
We feel your pain
The most successful new services currently are the ones that resonate on an emotional level. A prominent example is the e-mail picture service, provided by J-Phone, that has captured more than 3 million users to date.
In a J-Phone TV commercial, a young couple fights and makes up with each other through a series of cell phone picture mails of angry, sad, loving and happy facial expressions.
“Through cell phones, young people have come to think of photos differently. They think that pictures are not eternal or for memory. They think it is a tool for conveying emotions immediately at a given moment,” said Yoshikawa.
While picture e-mail is quite popular now it may not satisfy young people for long. The short-attention spans of Shibuya kids is bound to keep mobile companies guessing and competing for a new way to satisfy or entice.
Retailers are also turning to the keitai as the best platform for developing stronger customer relationships with these young adults. Tsutaya, for instance, is a major video and music retailer with one of the largest outlet chains in the country. The company initially based its online retail initiative around the PC Web but quickly realized the mobile Internet was more relevant for their young customer base. The firm’s profitable e-commerce operation now receives 65% of traffic and revenue through the keitai site.
One of the largest convenience stores, Family Mart, is now running concert ticket contests and other promotion campaigns by combining in-store coupons with access to the mobile Internet sites. Teens can pick-up a contest entry code with an in-store purchase and then log on to their keitai instantly to see if they’ve won concert tickets.
Who controls whom?
The phenomenon of the Shibuya kids shows the relationship between technology marketers and the young people they target. The influence of technologies, such as the mobile Internet, on the social behavior of young people is obvious. But the reciprocal truth that social behavior influences technology is also evident.
Young people have fertile imaginations and the propensity to learn new things quickly, making them ideal catalysts for the propagation of new technologies. This is why many mobile Internet companies – not just in Japan – have studied children to understand the potential for new applications.
The journalist Michael Lewis, in his book “Next: The Future Just Happened”, referred to this as the “child-centric model of economic development: If you want a fast-growing economy, you needed to promote rapid technical change, and if you intended to promote rapid technical change, you need to cede to children a strange measure of authority.”
This empowerment can work both ways, however, and turn against the technology firms that initiate this symbiotic relationship. Technology marketers can get rich by developing a symbiotic relationship with kids, but they can also find themselves unable to keep up with the appetite and imaginations of their young users. Worse yet, they can have their technologies subverted by the kids that are bored or dissatisfied with the service offering.
The balance of power
As the balance of power falls in favor of the Shibuya kids, the technology companies may be increasingly at their mercy.
In Japan, young people are beginning to turn away from sites and applications that are officially endorsed by mobile operators and going underground. One dark and strange example of this trend is an independent site called Zavn.net that has gained a sizeable audience and offline momentum with no promotion.
The site features a series of original novels about the Japanese phenomenon of “enjo kosai” in which some teenage girls in metro areas like Tokyo have affairs with middle-aged salary men in exchange for money. The stories of Zavn.net are written in punchy, card-size chapters that are intended to be read on a cell phone.
Zavn.net now has hundreds of thousands of readers. It has spawned a café in Shibuya and will reportedly be produced as a film. The success of Zavn.net and other underground sites reveals a side of the Shibuya kids that operators and reputable service providers may rather suppress or ignore. It is also a sign that they and everyone else will begin to lose control of what people produce and access on the mobile Internet.
Underneath it all, the keitai really is the Internet regardless of how users perceive it and in spite of the very different applications that prevail. The mobile Internet may have started out as a walled-garden and commercial play-thing for big telecom firms, but as it gains a critical mass it is inching towards the organic and unpredictable nature that we associate with the wired Web.
Let the mobile Internet companies beware that as they market young people in hope of greater profits, they put their own control and influence over the medium at risk.
Dmitri Ragano is a consultant for Intervision-Razorfish based in Tokyo.