Defining the Heisei Era: When communication in Japan went mobile

By Tim Hornyak

How did one say, “I love you” in 1990s Japan? It could be done in just five digits: 14106. Missing a sweetheart? Try 3341. Those were the days when combinations of numbers could convey one’s innermost feelings. The must-have gadget of the time was a variety of pager known as the Pocket Bell.

The news earlier this month of the death of pager services in Japan, a full 50 years after they began, made international headlines. In the mid-1980s, however, so-called pokeberu took off and millions of Japanese people from salarymen to schoolgirls were furiously texting each other. This movement marked the birth of texting and mobile communications in Japan.

In the past 30 years, Japan has gone from bubble and bust to global brand and B2B supplier. It has also undergone a communications revolution led by companies such as NTT Docomo, the nation’s largest mobile carrier. Digital technologies such as email, Web 2.0 and smartphones have changed countries around the world, and Japan is no exception. However, Japan initiated and adapted those technologies for its own ends and used them in unique ways. The era beginning in 1989 and known as Heisei, or “peace everywhere,” could just as easily be called “phones everywhere.”

‘Bell friend’ boom

One of the most powerful sparks that lit the communications revolution in Japan occurred in 1985, when the state-owned Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corp. was privatized as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) amid liberalization of the telecommunications sector. In a reorganization in 1992, NTT Mobile Communications Network, Inc. (now NTT Docomo) was born and took over NTT’s mobile business.

“What are you doing?” was 724106, “work” was 4510 and “good night” was 0833.

In the mid-1980s, mobile phones were hilariously bulky by today’s standards. However, pokeberu pagers were small, cheap and could be used just about anywhere. Following the device’s launch in 1987, pokeberu were marketed to businesses and spread rapidly over the next 10 years. By 1991, there were about 5.75 million pager subscribers in Japan, of which NTT had some 3.5 million. However, user demographics shifted rapidly. By 1993, nearly 70 percent of new NTT pager subscribers were individuals instead of companies.

Paging became such an integral part of daily life that the technology influenced relationships. One television show of the day was “Pokeberu ga Naranakute” (“My Pager Doesn’t Ring”) and it featured a song of the same name by Mari Kunitake with a chorus that ran along the lines of, “My pager doesn’t ring and my love is stalled.”

Schoolgirls in particular began referring to their berutomo (bell friends). Some berutomo would never even meet in person and only knew each other’s pager numbers, not their names. It was an embryonic form of social media. Users would use the keypads on public phones to text each other strings of numbers every day. “What are you doing?” was 724106, “work” was 4510 and “good night” was 0833.

“I began to use a pager when I was 16. At first, I used it for asking my friends to call me because we needed to call home phones to talk,” says Yoshimi Yoshida, a pharmacist living in Tokyo. “We especially needed it for boyfriends because I went to a girls’ high school. If boys would call my house, my parents always asked me about them, which was so annoying. We also used pagers to meet up with friends outside. There were always lines at public phones to send pager messages.”

Byzantine by today’s standards, berutomo texting fostered arm’s length friendships that appealed in another way.

“Anxiety regarding direct communication among some Japanese youth was such that they avoided calling on the phone and instead preferred text messaging,” Kenichi Ishii of the University of Tsukuba noted in a 2006 Journal of Communication study. “Young people, especially teenaged girls, found that communication needs were better served by text messaging through mobile media, and they readily adopted it.”

Japan’s pager craze peaked in 1996 at 10.6 million subscribers and then quickly fizzled as mobile phone use exploded. NTT had as many as 6.5 million Pocket Bell users and continued pager services under the brand QUICKCAST, only ending them in 2007. Japan, however, loves its zombie technologies. Just as telegrams are still available here — NTT East’s D-Mail service will still dispatch telegrams anywhere in Japan, even to remote islands — pagers lived on way past their use-by date. Tokyo Telemessage is a Shimbashi-based company that offered pager services to doctors, first responders and local governments, but subscribers have fallen below 1,500. The firm will pull the plug on the service in September 2019 to concentrate on offering emergency radios that use the old 280 MHz pager frequency.

“Pagers offered text-based communications and reliable reception requiring minimal base stations,” Tokyo Telemessage President Hidetoshi Seino says. “The old models could hold a battery charge for a month, which is very useful during natural disasters when electricity is cut off.”

Read the rest of the story at The Japan Times.