Is Japanese smartphone culture really so different from other countries? Foreigners weigh in…

Life’s really changed since we all graduated from flip-phones to smartphones. Now we all have tiny computers in our pockets which we can use to stay connected (and browse funny cat videos). But in Japan, which has always had its own unique smartphone culture, the change from gara-kei flip-phones to smartphones has been even more pronounced.

So, what are some of the things that foreign visitors and residents in Japan notice about Japanese smartphone culture? A recent article from Yahoo! Japan listed up 10 of the most common observations made by foreign contributors.

1) “Japanese people have excellent phone manners on the train or elsewhere in public” 

In Japan, chatting on the phone on the train is considered extremely rude and generally isn’t tolerated. Even the Top Gear guys got told off for using a phone on the Shinkansen during one episode! People are also generally careful about when and where they speak on the phone, since causing inconvenience to others and drawing attention to oneself in public is something a lot of Japanese people would rather avoid. Not so in many other countries, where some people don’t seem to care who’s listening to their conversation, and even watch videos on their phones without using headphones…

2) “Lots of adults can be seen playing smartphone games”

Who said video games were for kids? The assumption that only kids would be seen playing games on their phones is very narrow-minded, and in a country like Japan—which has a huge industry built around smartphone games—that kind of thinking doesn’t hold water. Since many people have long train commutes here, smartphone gaming is a convenient way to pass the time. You’ll also notice plenty of adults of both genders playing handheld consoles on the train, too.

Flickr/Joseph Choi

3) “Lots of people use iPhones”

When smartphones first started getting popular in Japan, I definitely noticed that a lot of people were opting for iPhones, and they’re incredibly popular. These days, you can spot a full range of models in people’s hands as other companies have brought out their own smartphones as the market grew. Samsung, Sony and LG rank pretty highly on the list, but so too do models made just for Japan’s own mobile phone carriers.

4) “Nobody really uses hands-free to talk”

This one I can definitely understand. I always get a shock when I go home to the UK because it seems like everyone’s walking around talking to themselves. In contrast, I hardly ever see anyone chatting hands-free on the phone in Japan, and if they do they’re using headphones and holding their phone, bottom edge closest, up to their mouth. Perhaps it’s got something to do with not wanting to draw attention, or not wanting to look like you’re having a chat with your imaginary friend.

5) “They communicate by sending food pictures”

This was an unusual one to see mentioned in Yahoo!’s article since, although the food picture-taking craze may have originated in Asia, thanks to Instagram we’re pretty much seeing this trend happen on a global scale. No need to be surprised when it goes on in Japan, surely?

▼ Food photo police need to stfu, this is art


6) “Lots of people use their phone while walking”

Known as aruki-sumaho (lit “walking-smartphone”) this practice is generally looked down upon in Japan, and yet it happens absolutely everywhere. In crowded cities like Tokyo, a smartphone-screen-gazing salaryman can become a serious pedestrian hazard. It’s even more dangerous on train platforms when one misstep could land you on the track. Some Japanese smartphones these days even come with an inbuilt feature which warns you—and sometimes prevents use entirely—when the phone detects you’re walking. Of course, it’s only an optional feature.

7) “Lots of people use pictures of their kids or popular characters as their avatars”

A lot of people in Japan have a strong sense of privacy, and many use pseudonyms online as well as opting out of using pictures of their face on social media. If you’ve ever browsed a dating site in Japan, you’ll find lots of people attempting to hide their face in their pictures (because everyone knows that looks don’t matter in online dating :P). It’s a strange phenomenon in this world of online over-sharing, but with many people in Japan drawing a clear line in the sand between their work and private life, it’s often essential.

8) “People get angry if you try to look at your smartphone during work”

We’ve all heard about how Japanese people work extremely hard. What we haven’t all realised, however, is that it’s often purely for show. Japanese companies are notorious hotbeds of time-wasting, with pointless, drawn-out meetings, excessive redundant paperwork, and plenty of slacking off. However, the important thing is to make it look like you’re working hard. That’s why you’ll often see staff at shops running like headless chickens from one end of the store to the other to perform some routine task, despite that fact that it’s actually dangerous to do so. I used to work in city hall in Japan and I observed the “work dash” on a daily basis—one brief glance at your smartphone would ruin the illusion of diligence.

9) “People often mess with their phones during dinner”

I think we can skip this point, because doesn’t this happen in every country in the world where people have access to smartphone technology? It sucks, but it’s not unique to Japan, sorry Yahoo!

10) “They don’t use Siri”

Perhaps this goes back to the imaginary friend theory from number four? Or maybe they’re all too busy playing with Rinna instead…


What do you notice about Japanese smartphone culture? How is it different in your country? And do you agree or disagree with the 10 points above? Let us know!

Source: R25 Yahoo
Feature Image: Flickr/Jorge Gonzalez