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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21

Japan's Mobile-Phone Culture
Thumbing a ride into cyberspace
By SACHIKO SAKAMAKI Tokyo

  ALSO IN TIME
COVER: There's No Turning Back
Two weeks later, the world still awaits a definitive result. The mood in Florida is getting ever more rancorous and ugly, but neither candidate can afford to give up now

THE PHILIPPINES: It's Hitting the Fan Now
The impeachment of President Joseph Estrada threatens to take the lid off the region's most volatile democracy
Viewpoint: Let Asia's elected leaders finish their terms

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: Wireless War
Japanese mobile-phone manufacturers take aim at Nokia and Ericsson in the battle to dominate the coming market for third-generation handsets. Can the Europeans hold the fort?
Entering the Fray: Outsiders want a piece of the action, too
Role Model: NTT DoCoMo's stunning success with the i-mode offers valuable lessons for all of Japan Inc.
Thumbs Up: A look at Japan's mobile-phone culture
Big Screen: Say goodbye to those old phone displays

GOLF: Homecoming Daze
He may be all-conquering on the course, but Tiger Woods didn't win many new friends on his visit to Thailand

EXHIBITIONS: National Treasure
Exquisite works by Japan's 17th-century master Koetsu

CINEMA: Guardian Angel
How Cheung-Yan Yuen got Charlie's Angels looking so good
Young Turks: A new direction for Taiwan film

TRAVEL WATCH: Finding Peace in a Himalayan Hideaway

ALSO
Role Model
NTT DoCoMo's stunning success with the i-mode offers valuable lessons for all of Japan Inc.
Wireless War: Japanese mobile-phone manufacturers take aim at Nokia and Ericsson in the battle to dominate the coming market for third-generation handsets. Can the Europeans hold the fort?
Entering the Fray: Outsiders want a piece of the action, too
Big Screen: Say goodbye to those old phone displays

When it comes to typing on a keyboard, many Japanese are all thumbs. But thanks to the country's ever-smaller mobile phones, that's the finger of choice for getting into cyberspace. Successive generations of young Japanese have earned nicknames like Bamboo Tribes or Speed Tribes. Now meet the Thumb Tribes. They're everywhere: on subways, in lecture halls, in bars and restaurants, thumbing away on the tiny keyboards of their mobile phones, displaying a remarkable ability to send messages and surf the Internet at warp speed. All with a single thumb.

Just watch Asami Yuzawa, 15, a junior high school student in Tokyo. Her right thumb rapidly taps the little buttons on her white mobile phone as she knocks out a greeting in a few seconds. "I can type much faster with my thumb than with 10 fingers on the keyboard," asserts the chubby teenager. She exchanges about 50 messages a day with friends, relating how she's doing, what she's eating and where they should meet up. She just learned how to use J-Phone's Internet service, J-Sky, which allows her to exchange messages with any e-mail user. She communicates with more than 100 cyberpals, including people she has never met—a popular phenomenon known as meru tomo, meaning "friends only for mobile phone e-mails." She also surfs websites for the latest news about her favorite pop singers and info on train routes. And, like other Japanese teens, she routinely downloads a favorite ringing tone (known as chaku melo, or "incoming melody"); her current preference is a tune by pop singer Ayumi Hanasaki. With all this thumbing, something's got to give and in Yuzawa's case it's reading. Also, by the end of the day her right thumb often aches.

One of Yuzawa's meru tomo could well be Koji Hakuta. A 28-year-old truck driver who spends most of his time either behind the wheel or reading manga comics, Hakuta doesn't sound like the most switched-on guy in the world. But he's part of an increasing number of regular folks leaping into wireless connectivity. Japanese truck drivers, in fact, have been mobile-phone trendsetters, relying on the phones to call headquarters instead of searching for big-rig parking spaces next to public telephones.

Internet access has opened a new horizon. In the past, Hakuta might find himself carrying a load of stainless-steel pipes from a factory in Tokyo's suburbs to Nagoya, only to return home empty-handed. But a year ago, his boss launched TraBox, a website aimed at brokering deals between drivers and cargo firms, designed for use on NTT DoCoMo's i-mode service. Hakuta now gets dozens of work-related e-mails a day; in Nagoya recently, a message alerted him to a load of pipes that needed to be in Tokyo. He phoned the shipper, got the job and made an extra $320 on the journey home. "I-mode has changed the way I work," says Hakuta.

The e-trucking experience suggests that i-mode may turn out to be far more than just a fad. Hakuta's boss, Yasunori Fujikura, and another trucking-firm executive had wanted to create a computer system that would bypass middlemen and link cargo companies with drivers. But the capital required was too much—until i-mode came along. At $180, a mobile phone is one-tenth the cost of a PC. TraBox was born. In the first year, it has signed up 1,100 trucking companies and 40,000 drivers, doing 150 deals a day. Not bad for a teenager's playtoy.

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