Musings about Japan and life as a human, a cosplayer, a minority, a music lover, an English teacher.

Japanese Cell Phones

A reader recently commented on my blog and asked for some information about cell phones in Japan, so I’ll write what I know. I wrote back in September about the cell phone that I picked up from Bic Camera shortly after my arrival in Japan. Japan has three major cell phone services: NTT Docomo, Softbank, and au by KDDI. At the recommendation of a regular student at Rikkyo, I got au, which I will also recommend to anyone that is going to get a cell phone in Japan. Each service has their pros and cons, though:

  • If I’m not mistaken, Docomo is the most widely used service among people in Japan. They have pretty nice cell phone models as well. However, it is also the most expensive. I don’t know much more than that, since most of my fellow international students either got Softbank or au.
  • Softbank is probably the cheapest (especially with the student discount), and also has nice models available. The iPhone is also available through this service, but I highly recommend that you DON’T get it. A friend of mine knows someone who has one, and it’s–for lack of a better word–crap compared to the usual Japanese phones. You have to download your mail manually, and it’s VERY slow to do so. The iPhone is so unpopular in Japan that at one point they were having a campaign offering it as one of the free phones that you can get with a 2-year contract.

    One advantage is that many of the Softbank phones have an English option available, so if you know very little to no Japanese, that won’t be a problem. A disadvantage is that Softbank’s reception isn’t all that great. Once I was in a restaurant in Sunshine City with some friends, and all but two of us had lost reception. Needless to say, the two of us who still had even the minimal reception didn’t have Softbank.

  • AU (which is normally typed ‘au’ but I’ll capitalize it for easy reading) is the service that I chose, and I was very happy with it. Depending on the plan you get, you may be able to get a student discount (my plan wasn’t eligible because it was too cheap). At the time they were doing a 10,000 yen ($100) cashback campaign as well, which was good. AU’s reception is VERY good and I’ve rarely had a problem with it outside of the subway (no one gets good reception on Oedo Line >_<). My bill was about $30-$40/month on average, the highest being about $60 when I used the internet and e-mailed a lot. One disadvantage is that AU doesn't have as much of a variety when it comes to phone models, and most of them don't have English. Since my reading skills are moderate I didn't have a problem with it. However, if you only plan on calling people and sending e-mails, the functions are pretty straightforward. I even learned a lot of Kanji trying to figure out how to do certain things. Overall I was happy with AU, and whenever I return to Japan I'll be sure to sign up with them again. Cancelling my contract before I went home took less than 5 minutes, it was pretty amazing.

Specifically if you’re going to Rikkyo, there will be plenty of people from IFL who can help you get a phone. Make sure you take some of your important documents that you received when you got your letter of acceptance. If I can remember correctly, one of the papers was a blue certificate of admission, which you will need in case you apply for a student discount.

Next, some general information about Japanese cell phone culture. In Japan, cellphones heavily outweigh other types of networking and communication. It’s not unusual for a Japanese person not to own a computer, and instead do all of their web surfing by phone. Wi-fi hotspots also aren’t quite as common as they are in the States; in fact, Rikkyo’s campus just got Wi-fi this past semester. Being able to check my e-mail on my phone was really helpful when the Internet was down at my dorm for about a week.

One cell phone function you will inevitably learn when you make friends in Japan is 赤外線 (‘sekigaisen’, or infrared). Infrared is how Japanese people exchange contact information. This used to be a feature on Nokia phones back in the U.S., but apparently people here find it easier to read out their entire phone number. But the other reason we do this in the U.S. is because we use our phone number for both calling and text messaging, whereas in Japan, phone numbers are for calls and then there are mobile e-mail addresses for written messages. Instead of copying both a phone number and an e-mail by hand, Japanese people use infrared to exchange all of the info at once. You can also add info such as your birthday, alternate addresses and phone numbers, and even blood type to your profile so that it is exchanged when you use infrared. (I still have my old Nokia 6102i with infrared, and apparently I can exchange information with my Japanese phone…not that it really helps, but it’s kinda cool.)

The last major feature I’ll mention is 絵文字 (’emoji’), which are what we call ’emoticons’. Japan is very big on animation, and there’s no exception when it comes to sending e-mails. If you really want to get into the Japanese texting culture, it would be good to learn what the different emoji mean, because there are so many of them! Pretty much any message you receive from a Japanese person (especially from girls) will have an emoji instead of a regular punctuation at the end of the sentence. I got used to it very quickly, and now I feel awkward when I type messages on my U.S. phone without any cute emoji (the American emoticons are pretty bland and even ugly). Emoji are very important when it comes to conveying feelings through e-mails and blogging, so be sure to keep an eye out for them!

There’s more to Japanese phones, of course. But if you’re going to Japan soon I’ll leave the rest for you to discover when you get your very own phone. I wish American phones were this great, but as always technology here lags way behind that of Japan. That’s all for now, and enjoy your Japanese phone ^_^ If you have any questions, you are always free to leave a comment or e-mail me.


One response to “Japanese Cell Phones

  1. ケリー August 17, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Thank you! That was really helpful and I'm sure I'll read through it again. I can't wait to get my Japanese phone (^_^)

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