Pager services in Japan finally ended in 2019 after half a century. The country’s last pager user explains why he held on.

By Tim Hornyak

Last September, mourners gathered in Tokyo for a memorial service like no other. It was held in Akihabara, a mecca for gadget geeks and pop culture superfans, and drew everyone from salarymen in business suits to café waitresses dressed as French maids. One by one, they entered a marquee that had been set up near the neighborhood’s thronging train station, laid white flowers on a table, and bowed before a giant image of the dearly departed. After half a century, pager services had finally come to an end in the country, and what was once a central part of Japanese life was officially no more.

Advertised as “a service for everyone’s pokeberu” — the last, a Japanese portmanteau of “pocket” and “bell” that became a generic term for pagers in the 1990s — the event was certainly tongue-in-cheek. But the fact that it drew fans both young and old, including many who likely had never even used a pager, highlights the outsize role that pagers played in Japanese culture.

For all its vaunted high technology — its bullet trains, humanoid robots, and futuristic toilets  —  Japan has a weakness for older forms of personal communication. Japanese big-box stores continue to sell fax machines, exchanging business cards remains an important professional ritual, and personal seals — an authentication technology dating back thousands of years — are still widely used for banking and legal affairs. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Japan’s biggest telecom, has stayed true to its name: It has an army of couriers who will deliver telegrams anywhere in the nation, including to remote islands; even during the coronavirus pandemic, the service has continued to operate, albeit scaled down.There was something about pagers, however, that commanded an unusual degree of passion and loyalty.

Perhaps Japan’s most loyal pager user is Ken Fujikura, a 55-year-old retired civil servant in Tama, a city to the west of Tokyo. In September, shortly before it pulled the plug on pager services, Tokyo Telemessage Inc., declared Fujikura the last individual subscriber in Japan. When it comes to pagers, Fujikura is an otaku, a superfan. He proudly shows off his beloved NP-900 pager, which he has kept as a collector’s item, and a more compact model, the mora, which he used until last year. His final bill, another treasured keepsake, was for 2,484 yen ($23). That’s not much, but it’s still more than the monthly cost of some mobile phone plans.

Fujikura’s obsession with pagers began when he was a college student in the 1980s, as mobile technology started to emerge in Japan. Most initial users were businesspeople, who appreciated the fact that pagers were compact, reliable, and relatively cheap compared to the brick-sized cell phones of the day. Soon, however, pagers also caught on with young people, who used them for fun. What sparked Fujikura’s interest was the fact that pagers offered a new way to reach out and communicate with people to whom he was otherwise unconnected. 

“In those days, there were no tools for communication or meeting up with people like we have today,” Fujikura said. “I found pagers to be really interesting and began using them to communicate and play around with friends.”

With pagers, users could exchange coded messages — sequences of digits that could phonetically mimic text — such as 1141064, which can be read as aishiteruyo, or “I love you.” Other examples include 724106 (“What are you doing?”) and 0833  (“Good night”).  Pager numbers also contained digits that denoted the user’s carrier and geographical region. By paging random variants of these numbers, Fujikura was able to connect with people in his own area, just as people would, decades later, meet through an internet chat room. He rediscovered an old classmate this way, and even met some women. 

The peak of the pager craze came in the 1990s, when the gadgets became wildly popular with schoolgirls. Slang terms, like berutomo (“bell friends”), and a TV drama called “Pokeberu ga Naranakute” (“My Pager Doesn’t Ring”) became part of popular culture. The show featured a song by the Japanese pop star Mari Kunitake, which decades later has racked up nearly 3 million views on YouTube.

In 1996, there were more than 10 million pager users in Japan. By last year, however, the number of subscribers had dwindled to 1,500. 

Fujikura acknowledges that, with smartphones and other new forms of technology, there’s hardly any reason for people to use pagers anymore. Social media makes it easy for people to communicate and express themselves online; Fujikura himself uses YouTube to share live concert videos of his favorite Japanese all-girl idol band and connect with other fans. Still, he wanted to stick with pagers until the end.

Fujikura’s dedication was driven not only by his personal affection for the medium. Another reason was more practical: Two decades ago, his mother had an accident and became disabled, and she needed a reliable way to reach her son. Cell phone calls and text messages didn’t always get through, particularly when Fujikura was traveling on his motorcycle. Pagers proved to be the perfect solution.

“My pager was compact, lightweight, and it was impossible to miss a call,” Fujikura said. “There’s no worry that a page will be missed because it’s buried by other notifications, like on a phone.”

After living apart for a while, Fujikura recently moved near his mother, which makes mobile communication less of an issue now. “She seems relieved that we can be physically together, instead of relying on technology,” Fujikura said. Still, it’s been hard for him to give up his beloved pokeberu.

“We’re still looking for a suitable replacement,” he said.

Published at Rest of World