Japan leads the technology gadget world. Japanese hardware manufacturers release their latest products in the domestic market first, and some advanced models are available only domestically. Whilst living in Tokyo, I was accessing the internet using iMode on my DoCoMo phone years before the introduction of 3G phones in the West. I always took it for granted that use of technology in Japan, especially in the domain of mobile/wireless communications, would be ahead and more advanced than anywhere else.
So I was unprepared for the strange experience I had walking the streets of Tokyo this week: I was the only one using a Bluetooth headset for my mobile phone (the H700 pictured on the left). It took me a while to notice it, but nobody except me had a Bluetooth headset. I noticed that on my first or second day here, and all week I looked around for somebody else using one. Nothing. Not even one person.
This being Japan, the reason for this strange “Bluetoothless” phenomenon is obviously not slow or late technology adoption. I believe the answer to this puzzle lies in the social and behavioural rules of mobile phone etiquette here.
A strong emphasis is placed on proper manners – manna-a to locals – when using a mobile phone. For example, it is very rare to see a Japanese person use a mobile phone to speak on the train (texting though is OK; it is actually the most common activity next to reading manga). In the rare occasions this happens, the entire body language is one of apology and self-minimisation: a hand cupped over the phone, the head bowed, and a look of real consternation on the face of the caller, who usually ends the call immediately explaining he/she is on the train. When in meetings or in public places, if the phone rings, more often that not the person taking the call will step out of the room. The all-too-familiar picture of two Israelis sitting at a restaurant or coffee shop, both talking loudly into their phones, is nonexistent in Japan.
So I think that Bluetooth use goes against this social etiquette. Speaking with a Bluetooth headset means the person is basically talking into thin air, seemingly to nobody (a familiar picture in airports). This is unacceptable behaviour here, as it is not obvious to others around you that you are on the phone. It is too embrassing and definitely too impolite to be talking this way. It’s almost like being caught eating in public, God forbid!