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Need a phone in Japan? The Vodafone counter at Tokyo Narita airport will sell you a phone with a prepaid card for around a hundred dollars, less of a hassle than rental. Even though it’s an outdated, cheap model, my new flip phone is the tiniest I’ve ever owned, with front and back color screens and a camera.

Prepaid phones are officially frowned upon because local criminal elements and foreigners use them. In practice, however, they are often given to children: A scan of the manual indicates that my phone can be tracked over the Web—I guess parents must like this feature as much as the cops do.

My flip-phone does have one feature of guaranteed appeal to teenage daughters, though: A button press causes the screen to turn into a mirror!

Schoolgirls heading into the trendy Shibuya district via the subway can be observed morphing themselves from demure, model children into pancake-powdered punk groupies. A mirror is obviously essential for makeup, and I presume, for the pre-curfew cleanup.

But when you look away from the kids to count everyone in the carriage under 35, one female in two and one male out of three will be thumbing a “keitai” cell phone.

As I remember it, cell phones really caught on in Japan when young women latched on to them soon after the schoolgirl-pager generation. The Japanese pagers that preceded phones had two-way text messaging based on Motorola’s Reflex technology; they were such a runaway success that they sold out.

Cell phone service resumes in two New York City tunnels. Click here to read more.

At the time, pundits thought that the pool of chatty young girls would soon be fished out, and cell phone sales would stagnate. However, the devices went mainstream, popular more as Web access and silent text messaging devices than for voice use. There are no shouters on public transportation here.

In fact, there are no shouters anywhere: The flip-phone design seems to have excellent acoustics. However, it’s definitely the messaging which is the killer feature: Messaging provides a silent way around the stringent no-personal-call policy enforced at many workplaces.

Nowadays, it is the cell phone that has become the ubiquitous net-access device in Japan, combining text content, sound, video and games. The PC is definitely the also-ran in Japan. And pay content is where it’s at: pay-text content, pay-sound content, pay-“chaku-uta” ring tones and “chaku motion” video clips, pay-Java games, or pay mapping with the GPS facility embedded in some phones.

The Docomo catalog informs me that I can access phone-formatted CNN headlines for just $3 per month. A similar subscription will let me download a Java golf game or Namco’s 3-D Pac-Man. A dictionary site will let me look up some words in exchange for a micropayment.

In lieu of each site’s URL, the catalog shows a printed square 2-D barcode that can be scanned in by the phone’s camera to take me directly to the site. The fee would end up on my phone bill.

Click here to read about contactless payment at 7-Eleven stores.

The telecommunications operators sell the phones under their own brands and try to drive their revenue by constantly experimenting with new features tuned to access new content. Pay content is a sheltered glasshouse ecology where revenue from the consumer’s phone bill trickles down from the telecom operator to the content providers.

This fee-sharing is a very different model from the advertising-driven nature of the “wild” Internet, as fee recovery is done by the operator. An NTT DoCoMo “i-mode” content provider posts no advertising on the site and hires no ad sales staff or billing personnel.

Also, the subscription model has transformed the known headache of cent-sized micropayments into multidollar amounts.

Next Page: Turning the phone into an electronic wallet.

This year’s new Vodaphone models can show live TV programs on their huge screens with 240×320 QVGA resolution. Trendy phones are now large, and the image is quite good.

However, Vodaphone phones are not the fashion thing here; the fun thing to own is an NTT Docomo (meaning everywhere) i-mode. These always have the latest techie features.

The latest new-new thing that NTT seems to be promoting is FeliCa, a contactless ID tag developed by Sony that provides the authentication necessary to turn your phone into an electronic wallet.

The wallet can store ID information and e-cash. The wallet can be conveniently topped up with e-cash by—you guessed right—accessing a site, which means the operator cashes in via the access charge.

Some interesting identification applications of the FeliCa technology are as membership card replacements, for example for video rentals or remote pre-check-in for flights—the boarding pass gets printed when you step up to the check-in machine at the airport—and remote booking of entertainment tickets, where your phone then identifies you for entry.

Much of this could be done with any contactless ID-tag technology, not necessarily built into a phone. Yet the huge, young subscriber base of i-mode provides the take-off pad to give the phone e-wallet technology a chance at success.

In order to address the security issues that arise when a phone contains as much confidential data as a wallet does, NTT is offering up two more innovations: remote locking of a device via the Net, and phones with built-in fingerprint scanners.

Concerning hardware, it’s obvious that the United States and Europe will always lag behind Japan, where the consumer electronics technologies are developed, but it’s strange to see that a country with minimal theft also leads in security features—remote locking is something we could all use.

Edmund Ronald has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, but he is currently on a sabbatical as a photographer in Paris. He can be reached at

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