electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 1 in 2009
First published in ejcjs on 25 February 2009

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Keetai Meeru

Younger People's Mobile Written Communication in Japan


Yoshiko Okuyama

Assistant Professor
University of Hawai'i at Hilo

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Mobile phone technology is rapidly permeating our everyday lives. In Japan, the mobile phone, or keitai, is considered an absolute necessity for work and personal use. The most frequent users of keitai are Japanese adolescents. This article describes the recent developments and characteristics of keitai meeru (e-mail via mobile phones), a popular form of communication amongst Japanese youth. The data presented here was derived from multiple sources: a survey taken of approximately 900 middle school, high school, and university students in the summer of 2006, interviews with teenage informants, and participant observations collected in 2006 and 2007. The main purpose of this study was to identify changes in the characteristics of keitai meeru reported in previous studies and to provide a more current perspective on school and gender-based differences in Japanese youth cyber communication. The study first highlights the findings of the quantitative data which include some statistically significant school- and gender-based differences in the frequency, purposes, and reasons for keitai meeru communication. The study then summarizes the informants' personal views in contrast to the perspectives of the surveyed adolescents.

Key Words

Mobile phones; technology-mediated communication; youth culture; keitai meeru; participant observation; field work; school surveys; gender-based differences.


Mobile Phone Communication in Japan

The mobile phone is a highly popular commodity throughout the world. In Japan, the mobile phone, or keitai,[1] has become quite a noticeable item since the late 1990s and is said to be 'indispensable in Japanese society' (Matsuda 2005:19). A few years ago, a little over 80 million people in Japan (closely 70% of the national population) were said to be using mobile phones (Igarashi et al. 2005). As of June 2007, statistics report about 98 million Japanese are users of mobile phones (Telecommunications Carriers Association, 2007). While gaining remarkable popularity, this tiny personal item has also become a potential nuisance in public settings. For instance, in response to occasional disturbances brought on by mobile phones, Japan Railways now plays a frequent announcement asking that passengers refrain from using keitai on trains. The phone has multiple functions including spoken (cell phone) and written (e-mail) communication, video and camera capacity, Internet surfing, and an active Global Positioning System (GPS).

The most popular feature of keitai is keitai meeru (Igarashi et al. 2005; Keitai Hakusho 2006; Tanaka 2000), which is an e-mail written with the mobile phone and transferred via the Internet (different from text-messaging in the United States in that the exchange of typed messages between mobile phones does not require an Internet connection there). Although the handheld mobile phone became commercially available in 1987 (Matsuda 2005), the year 1999, when DoCoMo introduced the i-mode technology that connects to the Internet, is said to mark the beginning of keitai meeru popularity (Nakamura 2005). An online survey of keitai users (from teens to those in their 50s), showed that more than 40 per cent of respondents said they receive eleven or more keitai meeru messages per day. About 22 per cent send eleven or more messages daily and more than 40 per cent reported their monthly phone bills being between 5,000 and 10,000 yen (Keitai Hakusho 2006).[2]

The most frequent users of keitai meeru – often meeru for short – are said to be Japanese adolescents (Igarashi et al. 2005; Ishii 2004; Ito et al. 2005), among whom university students appear to be the dominant age group. Quasha (2003: 64-5) reports that the mobile phone is an 'indispensable device for today's university student' in Japan, and it can be 'a social addiction for so many'. In one report, the age range of mobile distribution is said to include 12–14 year-olds (21%), 15–16 year-olds (65%), and 18–22 year-olds (92%) (Internet Association Japan, 2003). However, to the best of my knowledge, most of the previous literature on Japanese mobile writing had university students as the focus group. No single research compared different age groups of adolescents. A new study such as this one was needed to analyze and understand the overall pattern of younger people'ss meeru exchange over more recent years.

Trends in Japanese Youths' Mobile Communication

Several newly emerging characteristics of keitai meeru use among adolescents are also reported in previous studies of Japanese mobile communication. For example, the main reasons for sending meeru, as reported by college-aged women, include dekigoto no dentatsu (informing a friend of an event that has happened), asobi no sasoi (inviting a friend for socializing), or shiteki na sōdangoto (soliciting a friend's advice on a personal matter) (Miyake, 2002). The reasons most frequently cited by Japanese youths for choosing meeru over regular phone conversation include easy connectivity, no temporal and spatial restrictions (which regular phone calls usually have), and the avoidance of direct talk regarding a sensitive topic (Miyake Kazuko 2005). A more colloquial writing style is preferred as a way to increase intimacy and creativity, and word play is frequently used to add humorous, nonchalant effects (e.g. Satake 2005; Masuda 2005; Miyake 2007) similar to informal e-mail exchanges among Japanese youths (McVeigh 2002; Nishimura 2003).

Keitai meeru are also known to embrace code-like expressions called gal-moji. Some characteristics of gal-moji are unconventional orthographic mixtures (e.g. a random appearance of the Roman alphabet in a Japanese sentence) or the use of Greek mathematical symbols (e.g. ψ ) or other foreign fonts such as Cyrillic letters (e.g. Д), among other unique inventions for cell phone written communication in Japanese (Miyake 2004; 2005; 2007). Although constant connectivity with peers via cell phone brings a sense of tsunagarikan, or a feeling of closeness, it can cause technologically induced stress or strain in a personal relationship (Miyake 2005, 2007; Nakamura 2005; Nakamura & Watanabe 2005). The Japanese are reported to choose a tight-knit community of friends for technology-mediated interaction and are more reluctant to reveal personal information in the public domain (Ishii & Ogasahara, 2007). This partially accounts for their preference for unobtrusive, private meeru writing over cell phone talk. A relatively strong visual orientation inherent in Japanese society is said to have enhanced all types of written symbols in mobile writing (Miyake, 2007). Gender is also a factor in Japanese mobile communication as more women than men were found to exchange meeru (Miyake 2004; 2007).

Japanese youth continues to develop new trends, as media and research report rapid changes in youth mobile communication over the last year or two. Fresh samples of unique meeru writing, such as word-truncation, unconventional orthographic use, as well as a variety of pictographs, kao-moji (horizontally drawn 'smileys' and other symbols with facial expressions) and e-moji (graphic symbols that resemble objects and concepts), never cease to amaze us. Because keitai pictographs are easily downloadable from a phone's database, adolescents fill their meeru messages with many vivid, graphic icons (Miyake 2007; Okuyama 2008). Currently, however, kao-moji is becoming out-dated, as a new form of pictographs, deko-me (short for dekoreeshion-meeru or decoration mail), is taking the center stage of Japanese teens' visually rich discourse.

Reflecting quick changes brought by new trends in youth culture and innovations in cell phone technology, the characteristics of meeru use are evolving as well. Is this cyberspace still dominated by women? Are college students still leading in this peer-to-peer written communication? This study will answer those and other questions as it portrays the key player of keitai meeru through a new survey involving three different school-based groups: university, high school, and middle school students. The main purpose of this study is to provide a more current perspective on school and gender-based differences in Japanese youth cyber communication. By adding the qualitative data, the study will also compare the collective tendencies with the individual experiences of the technology to discuss broader social impacts of keitai meeru on ever-changing adolescent communication activities. Therefore, this study's academic contributions to the field of technology-mediated communication are in updating the characteristics of Japanese mobile communication and showing differences between collective views and individual voices.


Data Collection

The main purpose of this study was to identify the most recent characteristics of keitai meeru use as reported in previous studies by conducting a new survey in Japan and comparing the survey's findings with individual teen accounts. The study utilizes the ethnographic method of comparison across multiple sources (Harklau 2005), combining a school survey with interviews and participant observation. In the summer of 2006, I conducted a survey in a Japanese school and more than 900 responses were gathered from university, high school, and middle school students. I interviewed two teenage keitai meeru users as the key informants of the qualitative part of this study, and included a close observation of the keitai related behaviors of these informants in their daily settings during the years 2006 and 2007. The objective of the interviews was to uncover the knowledge that these adolescent keitai users shared as well as the individual variances which would help contextualize the interpretation of the survey's findings. As a participant observer, I also rented a cell phone and immersed myself in the keitai culture in Japan for one month each summer using a wide range of mobile phone activities (calling, e-mail, etc.).

Research Hypotheses of the Survey

The survey was the key component of this study in identifying the recent patterns of keitai communication and in verifying the characteristics reported in previous studies with data collected prior to 2004 (e.g. Ishii 2004; Igarashi et al. 2005; Miyake 2007). This current survey focused on the frequency of keitai meeru use, the various purposes of sending meeru to friends, and the reasons for choosing meeru over letters and phone calls. The survey was also used to find out whether there are any school- or gender-based differences within this surveyed group of Japanese adolescents. The following three hypotheses were formulated for statistical tests:

  1. University students use more keitai meeru daily than middle school and high school students.
  2. Female students use keitai meeru more frequently than do male students.
  3. Gender differences exist in the purpose of sending meeru to peers and in the reasons for selecting meeru over other methods of communication.

Participants of the Survey and Interviews

The study's target population was younger people in Japan, aged 13 to 24. This age group, covering middle school to university students, comprises the most frequent keitai meeru users (Ito et al. 2005; Ishii 2004; Igarashi et al. 2005). A written survey was conducted at a middle school, high school, and at two universities in the Kansai area,[3] and a total of 932 questionnaires were completed. The respondents' mean age was 16.5, with slightly more men than women participating (male 54.5%, female 45.5%). Table 1 shows the demographic characteristics of the three school groups: middle school, high school, and university students.

Table 1: Demographic Characteristics of the Survey Subjects

School Groups Number of Subjects Percentage Gender Ratio Mean Age
Middle School Students N = 191 20.49% Female: 48.1%

Male: 51.9%

High School Students N = 395 42.38% Female: 48.3%

Male: 51.7%

University Students N = 346 37.12% Female: 40.9%

Male: 59.1%

Total N = 932 100% Female: 45.5%

Male: 54.5%


(min.13 to max.24)

In the qualitative part of this study, two teenagers, Y-kun and K-chan, agreed to serve as informants. Both were middle school students in 2006 and heavy users of keitai meeru, two important characteristics pertinent to this study. A middle school boy, Y-kun, commuted to his school by train for close to two hours. K-chan initially cycled for about fifteen minutes to her middle school located in the same town, but since she had started high school in 2007, she was now commuting for 90 minutes daily each way by train. She was already doing this by the time we had our second interview. I had known both these informants for a while — one as my nephew and the other as my close friend's child. The rapport already established with these interview subjects through a long-term relationship helped me gain their cooperation easily in each interview session. My daily use of a rental keitai facilitated my learning of the Japanese cell phone features as did my observing of these teens from a participant's perspective for over a month each summer. This period of time enabled me to become quite familiar with the socio-cultural contexts of keitai meeru and to spend a considerable time with the informants both in their homes and neighborhoods.

Materials and Procedures

For the school survey, an anonymous two-page, 10-item, paper-and-pencil questionnaire was composed in Japanese. Some of the items were adapted from Kimiko Miyake's (2002) and Kazuko Miyake's (2006) surveys on keitai. A brief introduction and the purpose of the research were written at the top of the form. (A copy of the original Japanese questionnaire is provided in the Appendix.) The survey was conducted at each of the four schools in the same summer, under the supervision of a homeroom teacher or with a school instructor.[4] Students were asked to fill in the questionnaire only if they wanted to participate in the survey. Yet, because the questionnaires were administered directly by the teachers during class time, the survey yielded close to a 100 per cent response rate at each school. At the top of each form, a brief note explained that the purpose of the survey was to learn about mobile e-mail use in Japan. The students were asked not to provide their names. They were also told that they were permitted to leave out any item they did not wish to answer.[5] The collected questionnaires were either mailed or hand-delivered to me. All answers were coded for data entry and statistical purposes. Of the ten questions, Q.1, Q.7, Q.8, and Q.10 will be looked at for the current study's analysis.

For the interviews, some questions were prepared to solicit information on the informants' views on keitai meeru. These included: 'Tell me about your use of keitai meeru. Is it different from regular written Japanese?' Other questions, such as how the students coped with peer pressure and kept abreast with the pace of evolving meeru writing, were generated in situ as I talked to the individual informants. Both informants were interviewed in their native tongue — Japanese. I conducted a face-to-face interview at the homes of these informants in the summer of 2006, but I had to interview them by phone for the follow-up in 2007 because of some scheduling difficulties. Their responses were hand recorded and stored away together with the field notes. Besides the informal oral interview, I also asked the informants to complete a written questionnaire (the same one used in the survey), select several keitai meeru samples (messages that they composed for their friends and which they did not mind sharing with me), and to forward them to my mobile phone as sample materials. These samples were later transferred to my computer. Only the responses relevant to the focus of this study will be reported in the results section.


School Survey Results

Q.1 asked about the degree of frequency in sending meeru messages on a daily basis. Out of the total 932 participants, 851 (91.3%) responded to this item. The choice of answers was:

A. one or two messages per day
B. three or more but less than ten messages
C. ten or more messages per day

Those who chose A were considered light users, while those selecting B and C were labeled moderate and heavy users, respectively. Table 2 shows that nearly half the respondents (43.36%) were moderate users, and there were far more heavy users (33.25%) than light users (17.16%) in this population of 13–24 year-old users of keitai meeru. Those who had little or no experience were below seven per cent of the surveyed respondents. In terms of school-based differences, the university group yielded the highest portion of heavy meeru users (33.3%) as compared to the middle (27.5%) and high school (27.9%) groups. Close to 40 per cent of the middle school children had rarely or even never used meeru. When the heavy and moderate percentages are combined, the university and high school groups share a similar proportion of frequent meeru users (87.4% for university; 77.4% for high school).

Table 2: Frequency in Using Keitai Meeru

School Groups N of Responses Heavy Users Moderate Users Light Users Rare or No Experience
Middle School Students N = 124 N=34 (27.5%) N= 21 (16.9%) N= 20 (16.1%) N= 49


High School Students N = 386 N= 108 (27.9%) N=191 (49.5%) N=84 (21.8%) N=3 (0.8%)
University Students N = 341 N=141 (41.4%) N=157 (46.0%) N= 42 (12.3%) N=1


Total N = 851 N= 283 (33.3%) N= 369 (43.4%) N=146 (17.2%) N=53


Q.7 asked the respondents to select five out of the eight choices of purposes for sending keitai meeru to friends and classmates and to list them in their order of priority. A total of 778 (83.47%) responded to this item. Table 3 shows that the most commonly selected purpose was B – machiawase renraku (arranging a meeting). This purpose was slightly higher (22.11%) than G – yoken nashi no oshaberi (just chatting) at 19.92%, or E –arudekigoto no dentatsu (informing a friend of an event that has happened) at 18.77%. The last two frequently selected purposes were A – asobi ni sasou (inviting a friend to play together) and D – kimochi no dentatsu (sharing one's feelings with a friend).

Table 3: Top Five Purposes of Sending Keitai Meeru to Friends

Purposes N of Responses (Percentage)
B: to arrange a meeting N = 172 (22.1%)
G: to chat casually N = 155 (19.9%)
E: to inform a friend of an event that has happened N = 146 (18.8%)
A: to invite a friend to socialize N = 128 (16.5%)
D: to share one's feelings with a friend N = 103 (13.3%)

Others: C, F, H, I

N = 73 (9.4%)


N = 777

Q.8 also asked the respondents to select five main reasons for choosing meeru for peer communication over phone conversation or letter writing and to list these reasons in their order of priority. A total of 769 (82.51%) responded to this item. Table 4 shows the summary results, indicating that the top two reasons for choosing keitai meeru were: A –itsudemo okurete benri (convenience of around-the-clock connectivity) at 47.98% and B – suguni okurete benri (convenience of immediate contact) at 25.88%. The other most commonly selected reasons that occupied less than 10% respectively, were: G – kotobade ienaikoto ga iiyasui (ability to express things much more easily than using words only), D – meeru no yaritoriga tanoshii (fun to exchange meeru) and H – tegami o kakuyori kantan (this was easier than writing a letter).

Table 4: Top Five Reasons for Choosing Keitai Meeru Communication over Phones and Letters

Reasons N of Responses (Percentage)
A: convenience of around-the-clock connectivity N = 369 (48.0%)
B: convenience of immediate contact N = 199 (25.9%)
G: ability to express things more easily than with words only N = 52 (6.8%)
D: fun to exchange meeru messages N = 43 (5.6%)
H: easier than writing a letter N = 42 (5.4%)

Others: C, E, F, I

N = 64 (8.3%)


N = 769

Q.10 was designed to solicit information about each respondent's gender. A total of 902 respondents (96.78%) answered that question. Using these responses, I ran the statistical tests of a two-way chi-square to see if the gender factor was directly associated with any of the three factors described above: frequency of meeru use, primary purposes of sending meeru, and main reasons for choosing this over the other types of communication. Table 5 summarizes some characteristics of the gender differences.

Table 5: Gender Differences in 'Purposes' and 'Reasons'

Factors of Comparison Male Students Female Students
Frequency in Meeru Use

Heavy Users:

Moderate Users:

Light Users:


N= 126 (15.3%)

N=193 (23.4%)

N= 88 (10.7%)

N= 34 (4.1%)

N=150 (18.2%)

N= 163 (19.8%)

N= 57 (6.9%)

N=13 (1.6%)

Top Five Purposes






N= 82 (10.8 %)

N= 88 (10.5 %)

N= 32 (4.2 %)

N= 76 (10.0%)

N= 81 (10.6 %)

N= 42 (5.5 %)

N= 80 (11.6 %)

N= 71 (9.3 %)

N= 64 (8.4 %)

N= 73 (9.6 %)

Top Five Reasons






N= 211 (10.8 %)

N= 89 (10.5 %)

N= 23 (5.6 %)

N= 21 (5.2%)

N= 21 (5.2 %)

N= 150 (19.8 %)

N= 170 (30.1 %)

N= 20 (5.7 %)

N= 8 (2.2 %)

N= 31 (8.7 %)

First, there were more heavy users among women than men, while the male group had more light users or those with little or no experience with keitai meeru. These differences were statistically significant[6] at the p-value of 0.001. Second, gender differences in both 'purposes' and 'reasons' were prominent and statistically significant at the p-values 0.000 and 0.013 respectively.[7] In short, men tended to send meeru to arrange a meeting (B), invite a friend to socialize (A), or to chat casually (G), whereas women also chose B and G, but the third most common purpose was D, to share one's feelings (such as happiness and sadness). D was one of the lowest priority items in the male group. Men's top reason for choosing meeru over calling or letter writing was the aspect of immediate contact (A), while women most frequently mentioned the around-the-clock connectivity of keitai meeru (B). Both groups chose enjoyment of meeru communication (D) and its readiness in expressing things that are usually harder to express with words alone (G). Yet, slightly more men chose E – hima tsubushi ni saikoo (perfect way to pass time) than did women, although this difference was not significant.

Additional chi-square analyses of the school groups (middle school, high school and university) indicated that the relationship between the school group and the frequency factor was statistically significant at the p-value of 0.001.[8] The university group had a higher number of heavy users than did the other two groups, whereas the middle school group had the highest rate of rare/never users of keitai meeru. By comparison, the university group had more heavy and moderate users and the high school group had more moderate and light users. The school factor, however, had no statistically significant association with the other factors.

Observation and Interviews with K-chan

Prior to the first interview, K-chan lost use of her keitai because of her overuse of meeru during the previous months. It was typical for a Japanese parent to take the child's mobile phone away when the child's excessive use resulted in a large phone bill or when the child's grades began to drop. K-chan obtained her mother's permission to temporarily use the keitai during the researcher's home visits. When first interviewed, she was still a 14-year-old middle school girl. She considered herself a heavy user of keitai meeru, sending an average of more than 10 messages per day. She rarely used those visually appealing, colorful e-moji icons, which would make the message more expensive. But she almost always included kao-moji in the text so that 'bun ga yasashiku naru' (the message would sound softer) and, in that way, she expressed her feelings more easily. She would occasionally write in gal-moji, a code-like script invented by a subculture of rebellious young girls called kogal (see Miller, 2004) to sign her own name and spell some very common words. Ashita, meaning 'tomorrow,' is spelled with the Hiragana letter for a followed by non-Japanese symbols – U for shi and + = for ta – that resemble the conventional letters したyet add a playful connotation. But she used gal-moji only sparingly because it is difficult to master the code. She engaged in yōken nashino oshaberi (chatting for no specific purpose) only in response to her friends' meeru; she would usually send meeru to confirm the next day's jikanwari (school schedule) with a classmate or discuss other school related matters. Her reasons for choosing meeru for peer communication were itudemo okurete benri, convenience of sending a message at any time, or around-the-clock connectivity, and kotoba de ienaikotoga iiyasui, ease of expressing oneself when it is rather hard to do so in face-to-face communication.

K-chan expressed concern about the financial obligation of too much meeru activity. Her sample messages appeared to be the typed version of the casual Kansai dialect she used with close friends — a sentence typically ending with a cute kao-moji mark. What she liked about meeru was that the writer could get to the point by bypassing usual formulaic greetings. A meeru sentence can be awkwardly choppy compared to standard letter-writing, leaving the receiver with several possible interpretations of the message. That is why adding kao-moji is important; for example, un betsuni iide ('that's all right' in her dialect) with a smiley surely conveys a positive nuance to the receiver. Writing a wordy message is not done. Although the main providers of mobile phones allow up to 1,000 words per message, the longer the text the more expensive it becomes. (The charge is based on a 'packet' system.) Because she was able to call her friends with ieden (a home phone), losing the privilege of her keitai would not gravely affect her social life. Not all her middle school classmates owned a mobile phone.

Since K-chan was admitted to a high school in another town the following year, her meeru use has changed drastically. Because she now commutes by train for long hours, she must carry her keitai daily so that her parents will know her whereabouts. The average number of her daily meeru contacts switched from 10 to over 50 messages, although most of them are 'chats of no substance' with her friends, according to her. She uses deco-me e-moji (colorful, neatly drawn pictures of animals, objects and others, intended mainly for 'decoration' purposes) downloaded from her cell phone – again, to boost the effects of cuteness and cheerfulness. To stay in constant touch with all her friends, she takes advantage of her cell phone service provider's flat charge (4,500 yen, or less than $50 per month). Her primary purposes of meeru have become more diverse depending on the type of persons she is contacting, although her reasons for choosing meeru remain the same.

Observation and Interview with Y-kun

Y-kun is almost two years younger than K-chan. At the time of the first interview, he was a 13-year-old freshman at a private middle school located in another town. Like K-chan, he had lost access to his phone a few times in the past because of his overuse of meeru. He was a self-proclaimed 'super' heavy user, sending over 100 messages on some days at the time of the first interview. The amount of his daily meeru did not change within a year. However, he now calls keitai the 'lifeline' of his peer network, particularly because his busy school life keeps him from having direct, fact-to-face contact.

At both interviews, Y-kun was commuting to school for over one hour every day, and the mobile phone was the necessary means by which his family kept close contact with him for safety. His own motive for carrying keitai, however, was to be connected with his close friends whenever he wanted to be without parental supervision. His familiarity with keitai pictographs and ability to offer detailed explanations of what each symbol means now surpasses those of the other informant. It is impossible for him to compose a decent message without kao-moji or e-moji. For him, the absence of these symbols would have an undesired effect: 'Bun ga gachi-gachi ninaru,' he says. ('The message would become sterile.') Kao-moji is like an antidote to misinterpretation when a message can have two opposite meanings. For instance, mō iiyo, or 'that's all right,' can be interpreted positively, as in 'don't worry about it,' or negatively, as in 'forget it, you jerk!' With a smiling kao-moji icon, however, the receiver will know that the sender is not angry with him. Y-kun enjoys thinking of what to choose from his rich reservoir of graphic symbols. His favorite is the animated e-moji – for example, , a cartoon demonstrating moving arm muscles. He believes that, because of its visual effect, this animated cartoon's meaning is stronger than kao-moji (e.g. ^_^ a black-and-white illustration of a happy face) and that the e-moji's colorful, kinesthetic representation of an emotional state reinforces what he wants to express (one's willingness to engage in a physically demanding task). He reiterated in the second interview that the mobile pictographs are an important device used to express the sender's emotional state as well as a means for communicating subtle nuances. Although he likes deco-me, he cannot afford to use it because an extra fee would be added to his monthly flat charge of 4,200 yen. Middle school students and most high school students are not allowed to obtain part-time jobs in Japan.

Y-kun is also fond of kigō-moji (code-like symbols including gal-moji, Arabic numerals, and kanji characters) and cites the symbol of the music note , which connotes the sender's being in an extremely good mood, as his favorite example. The music note actually happens to be one of the two most commonly mentioned symbols among the surveyed students. This is probably because of its frequent use in comic strips as it depicts a person with run-run kibun, expressing a feeling of elation and run-run referring to humming sounds. The other popular symbol was a star. Some of Y-kun's keitai sample messages are like cryptic notes, very hard for me to decode without his assistance. He also writes simple, decodable messages and enjoys regularly changing chaku-uta (ring tones signaling incoming calls or meeru). Upon his insistence, I adopted the theme song of a once popular TV drama, 'Furuhata Ninzaburoo,' as a ring tone. Whenever my mobile phone played the chaku-uta loudly on the crowded train, it caused a moment of embarrassment until I finally figured out how to switch to the 'manner mode,' or a signal with vibration only.

To add a humorous tone to a message, Y-kun sometimes mixes different degrees of politeness. For example, switching from his regular casual form, he asks me in a meeru message, 'Nanji goro okoshini narimasu ka?' meaning, 'Around what time are you arriving, ma'am?' He asks this formally, in the language of a receptionist addressing a customer at a hotel front desk. His meeru samples include other unusual expressions: use of a dialect he does not speak (e.g. Hona sainara), English phrases (e.g. 'see you'), and kakko-moji (a single kanji character in parenthesis). The intended effect of these unconventional usages is mainly to lighten the mood. Interpreting meeru messages correctly appears to require expertise or some experience with them, at least. Y-kun describes the nuances of similar messages with a few examples. A text message 'Ohayoo' (good morning) and a smiling kao-moji with open hands would imply a cheerful, morning greeting, whereas the same text with a kao-moji made of slanted eyes, an O-shaped mouth, and one hand up would read, 'Good morning, but I'm still sleepy…' The message 'ima doko' typed with a smiley is just a greeting meaning hello, while the same text with a question mark at the end is a genuine question, asking, 'Where are you now?'

According to Y-kun, there is the etiquette of keitai meeru that he and his peers must adhere to. For example, upon receiving a meeru message from a friend, one must respond as soon as possible. Some people get upset when they do not receive a reply immediately. However, Y-kun has never thought of this unspoken obligation as a type of peer pressure; to him keitai meeru communication is an outlet for releasing stress. He has never felt that 'his time is disappearing,' a common concern expressed by Japanese youth (Tanaka 2000). In responding to the questionnaire, he listed in order of priority, the five main purposes for sending meeru to friends. They were: to express feelings of joy, sadness etc., to invite them to play together, to chat casually, to inform them of an event that has occurred, and to arrange a meeting. His top two reasons for choosing meeru as a form of communication over letters or phone calls are two convenience factors: suguni okurete benri (convenience of having immediate contact) and itudemo okurete benri (convenience of around-the-clock connectivity). His third reason is the simple pleasure of peer communication that spices up his long daily commute to school, back and forth. Although his main purpose of meeru has not changed, he points out that the intentions vary, depending on whom he needs to contact. However, his most current reasons for meeru are its cost (lower than cell phone calls) and the ease of expressing his feelings (as compared to face-to-face communication). At the second interview, he pointed out two recent phenomena: the much lower cost of meeru and a purofu (profile), or a personal website created through the mobile phone, which is loaded with a photo and other information about the site owner, such as age, birthday, and hobbies. The purofu has gained quick popularity and provides the ability to exchange site addresses. This became a new trend among Japanese teens in 2007.


Frequency of Keitai Meeru Use Among Adolescents

The survey results show that both heavy and moderate users are more concentrated within the university student group. The results of the chi-square tests further confirm this, with the university student group having the most frequent users of keitai meeru.[9] Therefore, Hypothesis 1 was supported by the current survey results. Since the summer of 2006, university students in Japan continue to lead in the daily volume of mobile writing. They are closely followed by the high school group. In 2007, as more teens like K-chan and Y-kun sign up for a flat-charge program, the gap of this between-school group is beginning to close up.

Purposes of Sending Keitai Meeru to Friends and Classmates

The survey showed that the three most commonly cited purposes of sending keitai meeru were to arrange a meeting, to chat casually, and to inform a friend of a recent event. Exchanging feelings was secondary, particularly for the male respondents, where it was placed at a much lower priority. Interestingly, however, at both interviews, the male informant, Y-kun, selected this item as his main purpose. (More discussion on gender differences are provided at the end of this section.) Nakamura (2005) reported that the meeru users' top three purposes were to send messages about oneself (e.g. 'I'm on the train'), to share personal information (e.g. 'I have a lot of homework'), or to inform a friend of one's current psychological or physical state ('I'm tired'). Tanaka (2000) found that communicating personal matters, confirming the location of a meeting, and casual chatting were university students' most frequent purposes of sending meeru. However, as both interviewees informed me at the second interview, perhaps the specific purpose largely depends on the type of friend they write to. They also both said that it is difficult to get an accurate picture of peer-to-peer communication in a context-free survey.

Except for slight differences, all these findings seem to confirm the assumptions presented in some previous studies: Keitai meeru is a means of maintaining close contact within a social network. For instance, Ishii (2004) stated that the main objective of university students' meeru communication is 'staying sociable while keeping up with trends,' and Igarashi et al. (2005) argued that Japanese adolescents do not seek new friendships but nurture selective interpersonal relationships through keitai. In other words, meeru is used to deepen an already existing friendship only with the peers that one chooses. Because keitai communication operates within a close circle of friends, there are also concerns of peer pressure and psychological dependence, such as having to reply immediately to a friend's meeru. Kamibeppu and Sugiura (2005) found in their survey of teenagers that about 48 per cent of the subjects felt insecure and ignored when their messages were not answered immediately, especially when the other person had a phone and could reply quickly. The unspoken rule of reciprocity was also referred to by Y-kun. Even if the asynchronous nature of technology-mediated interaction temporarily removes the burden of on-the-spot replies (Igarashi et al. 2005), the meeru receiver may still feel pressured to respond in a timely manner. Some youngsters shoulder a burden from many meeru contacts that financially affects the receiver as well as the sender, as K-chan used to do.

Reasons for Choosing Keitai Meeru over Other Communication Methods

In the current study, the majority of the respondents valued two aspects of convenience: first is the anytime/anywhere connectivity (itudemo okureru), and second is the speed of the connectivity (suguni okureru). At the first interview with Y-kun, he also selected the same items as his main reasons. Satake (2005) pointed out that this immediacy factor makes keitai communication more like telephone conversation, where speakers have no time to carefully choose words or edit grammar. Besides the anytime/anywhere convenience, K-chan also chose the ease of expressing himself as an important reason for using keitai communication. In Kimiko Miyake's (2002) study with female university students, it was also found that expressing personal feelings was much easier to do in keitai meeru than in face-to-face communication and was cited as the aspect most valued by women. In another survey with female college students cited in Nakamura (2005), the description of a current event or of one's emotional state was the most frequently mentioned reason for using meeru. It is often pointed out in American studies of online class discussions that students, especially more introverted ones, are more likely to feel comfortable expressing their voices in this manner (e.g. Carnevale 2003). In the second interview, Y-kun also selected the ease of self-expression as a primary reason. Regardless of their gender, Japanese youths are choosing meeru over telephone calls and letter writing probably because of the perceived (but not necessarily accurate) image of technology-mediated communication as a relatively risk-free environment for sharing personal information.

Gender Differences in Keitai Meeru

Two hypotheses on gender differences were tested and were well supported by the results of the chi-square analysis. For Hypothesis 2, in Japan, more women than men were found to use keitai meeru, confirming the findings of the previous literature on keitai (e.g. Miyake 2004). Indeed, as my 2006 survey indicates, the cyberspace of mobile writing is still dominated by women.

For Hypothesis 3, gender-based differences were also confirmed in the purposes of meeru exchange and the reasons for choosing it over telephoning or letter writing. The most interesting finding was that the female respondents were more likely to choose the sharing of emotions as one of the top three purposes of sending meeru to peers. This item was the number one purpose of the male informant, Y-kun, who also selected inviting a friend to play and chatting casually as his second and third purposes. Both items were also two of the top three purposes chosen by the male respondents in the survey. Thus, except for minor individual differences, there exist clear distinctions in the perceived roles of gender in technology. As for reasons for choosing meeru over telephoning or letter writing, both men and women chose the enjoyment of meeru communication as well as the ease of expressing things. The only major difference between the sexes was that the aspect of immediate contact was more valued by men, and the around-the-clock accessibility by women.

Lin's (2005) study of Hong Kong university students also reported similar gender differences in mobile communication: more female than male students were found to use mobile e-mail to keep in touch with other female confidantes, and women were more likely to send messages of seasonal/birthday greetings and keep old messages for remembrance. It was also pointed out that traditionally, in China, women tend to send greeting cards as the give-and-take of socialization. In an Australian survey (Littlefield 2004) girls were found to send significantly more messages per week through Short Messaging System, or SMS, than did boys. Although statistically non-significant, in Norway more boys than girls were found to own mobile phones (Skog 2002); traditionally, technology use in Norway is associated with men, yet girls have gained 'competence and knowledge of the type of technology that the mobile phone represents, which may convey a change in stereotypic female interests' (p.268). As in Japan, more girls than boys emphasized the use of SMS as an important reason for mobile ownership (75% vs. 62%). 'Girls are the major users of the SMS system, which symbolizes the creative potential of the mobile phone, allowing text to be combined with graphics' (p.269). Similarly, in Denmark, an increasing number of girls and women are said to be exchanging messages with friends of their gender for the sheer purpose of being in contact (Internet Association Japan, 2003). Thus, although the gender gap in cyber communication may be gradually narrowing world-wide, it still appears to be a discernible reality in these countries.


The main point of this study was to identify changes in the characteristics of keitai meeru reported in previous studies and to offer a more current perspective on school and gender-based differences in Japanese youth cyber communication. The study provided both qualitative and quantitative perspectives of young keitai meeru users in Japan. The survey results verified some long-lasting characteristics of the popular digital writing by Japanese adolescents. Although the current survey method lacks random sampling, the findings confirmed that the most frequent users are university students and that female users send more messages per day than do male users. In addition, men are likely to send meeru to plan a fun activity to do together, while women tend to use meeru to share emotions. Immediacy of contact is more valued by male respondents, but around-the-clock connectivity is more favored by female respondents. Regardless of gender, however, Japanese youth appears to enjoy the interpersonal aspects of keitai communication (e.g. chatting).

The interviews with the two teenagers revealed the insiders' views regarding the new technology. The interviews also helped interpret the survey results in more personalized contexts, although the small number of informants means that more qualitative research of this nature may be necessary. As Matsuda (2005) stated, mobile communication needs to be examined as a form of discourse that is embedded within the participant's particular social context. As this study revealed, Japanese teenagers like K-chan and Y-kun are constantly moving with the rapidly changing, informal style of mobile communication as they deal with their new commuting and peer networking needs. This quickly evolving youth mobile communication needs to be reviewed at least yearly, as an attempt to formulate a new perspective to the existing literature.

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[1] The complete term for mobile phone in Japanese is keitai denwa (portable phone). However, the abbreviated version, keitai, is more commonly used nowadays, pronounced 'keetai' and is usually spelled in katakana, a phonetic script.

[2] Based on an exchange rate of USD1.00-JPY92.75 (16 February 2009), JPY5,000 to 10,000 would be approximately $46-$92.

[3] The middle and high schools surveyed were public schools, while the two universities were private. Because there were no statistically significant differences between the two universities, the schools were combined as one 'university' group.

[4] The contents of the questionnaire had to be examined by the middle school and high school principals in order to receive their permission for conducting the survey. The same questionnaires were administered at universities in several different classes in the English or Foreign Languages Department. I was not present during any of these classroom surveys.

[5] From a statistical point of view, allowing questions to be unanswered is not advisable. Yet, this leniency was necessary from a cultural point of view: a more aggressive approach to gathering surveyed data, especially when the researcher is a stranger to the respondents, is likely to be taken negatively in Japan. Extra caution was taken when wording the questions in order to obtain cooperation and permission easily from each school. Technical information on conducting surveys in Japan is available in Tanaka (2004).

[6] The Pearson Chi-Square of this test was 16.625, which exceeded the critical values of χ2, either 7.8 (α =.05) or 11.3 (α =.01), based on the table (DF=3) used in Cohen (1996).

[7] The Pearson Chi-Square for 'gender x purposes' was 38.093, which exceeded the critical values of χ2, either 14.0 (α =.05) or 18.4 (α =.01). The Pearson Chi-Square for 'gender x reasons' was 17.762, which exceeded the critical values of χ2, either 7.8 (α =.05) or 11.3 (α =.01). Both are based on the table of critical values (DF=7) in Cohen (1996).

[8] The Pearson Chi-Square of 'school group x frequency' was 302.915, which exceeded the critical values of χ2, either 12.5 (α =.05) or 16.8 (α =.01), based also on Cohen (1996).

[9] Although one may associate the cost of mobile communication with university students' frequent use of meeru, it should be noted that parents of middle and high school children pay all or most phone expenses in Japan. Thus, affordability may not be directly linked to this finding.

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About the Author

The primary investigator, Yoshiko Okuyama, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Japanese and Linguistics at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo. She teaches all levels of Japanese language classes as well as courses in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and second language acquisition. Her recent research includes computer-assisted language learning.

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Copyright: Yoshiko Okuyama
This page was created on 25 February 2009.

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