One of my remaining ponderings for Japan is the mobility of the society. In most aspects of traveling japan, from taking the Shinkansen bullet trains to watching the Shinjuku subway station a few minutes before the last train at midnight - Japan moves very quickly. In the following paragraphs I'll briefly address a few examples I've noticed, and then discuss the higher level topic of mobile cultures and communities.
Mobile devices arent just used by teenagers here. Train conductors on most trains are using specially designed mini-tablet computers to check seats reservations and note who they've already validated. I'm presuming these are wirelessly linked to a central train computer and probably the remote office. From a design perspective these are interesting in that they need to provide accurate information quickly because of social constraints, and are constantly used while walking by the train conductor who is also using his hands for other things (e.g. holding tickets).
I've also seen pdas and other mobile devices used by waiters to take orders in some places. Japan likes its automation. Many of the typical Japanese diners (for working people, cheap food, curries and the like) have a vending machine where you choose your meal, pay and get a ticket, which you present to the chef. It minimizes the need for extra staff to do what the customer can do themselves.
I hate busses, I really do. They are confusing, swerve around, take indirect routes, don't tell you where you are, are smelly, noisy, etc. However, the buses in Kyoto weren't bad. They have digital displays in the front which tell you what the next stop is going to be in alternating Japanese Kana and English. For primary stops that tourists are likely to take, they usually announce it audibly (recorded voice) in English as well. But you can't always hear it because of the noise. So they are presumably tracking GPS location and automatically updating this, unless the bus driver is tapping a button each time he/she leaves a stop. Trains do the same thing, warning you audibly and visually of upcoming stations in enough time to use the bathroom and get your bags down before you need to step out of the train. The subways arent quite as good in Tokyo, in that only some of them show a digital display showing current location, direction of travel and next stop - so you still have to look at the windows at station signs sometimes.
Pretty much everyone uses phones here, from young to old. Older people here aren't any more tech savvy here than in other countries. A japanese tourist I met was still using a bulky automatic film camera. When I was in an izekia (japanese bar) a semi-drunk older japanese man had his phone ring loudly about 4 times. I don't think you're really supposed to be talking on phones in the pubs, or having it off silent mode. Worse yet, he couldn't figure out how to answer it (voice call) and they kept ringing back after he hung up on them. One time he tried to answer it without open the phone (clamshell). So the Japanese still make complex gadgets that their users find difficult to use while drunk! (I think all technologies should be usable while drunk on Sake).
Another aspect of the mobility of japanese society is the capsule hotel. The capsule hotel is several floors of perhaps several hundred capsules on each floor. A capsule is like a bunk bed, but more enclosed, with a curtain at one end. Inside is a TV, radio, alarm clock, mattress, mirror. Typically they are used by japanese 'salarymen' who stay out drinking late and don't want to spend time taking the train home to the wife and kids. You walk in, stick your stuff in a locker and put on a Yukata (robe). Then there is a communal bath and shower, restaurant, tv chill spots, massage chairs, etc. I presume you can probably get your suit laundered for the next day of work as well. So this is the home away from home, where you can relax, drop in without advance notice, get all your shaving and toiletries supplied by the hotel and be off to work the next morning. This all costs about $40 US a night. For cheaper you can sometimes just rent one of the lounge chairs to sleep in in the common room, or even crash on the floor. Its designed for people without a home, or with a frequently changing locations.
Last night I went out with some Japanese friends to dinner. They didn't know where the restaurant was, so they pulled out three different phones and checked the location. Later when we wanted to get to different parts of town they had the phones out checking timetables and locations of subway stations. When we had to meet up we used the usual combination of mobile email and voice calls for the final synchronous approach.
Japan, and particularly Tokyo is on the move. They have put in an excellent public transportation infrastructure. Traffic can be bad, but the majority of people arent driving cars and probably dont need to. When workers need to give parking tickets, check train seats and take orders, they can often do them on mobile devices (that seem to be designed well enough to not really attract attention by the customer). When the Japanese are out with friends, or drinking with the boss, or commuting to work, they are in touch with the wife or boyfriend or whatever on the mobile. When they enter communal areas with more social restrictions they switch to quiet modes of communication (email). Whever they are, they can be reached, and where they are is constantly changing. Getting around in-person is obviously still important, and very much supported by the transportation network. So the virtual existence doesn't show much of a sign of winning out over the physical one just yet. More likely is a fusion of the two, where virtual support physical interaction - just like in the case of the ticket machine (albeit mechanical) assisting the chefs in the diner.
A great portion of this interaction is quite random and unpredictable. You don't know where you're going to be and you will almost certainly be distracted. You don't know how you will be able to communicate (what the social and physical limitations will be) wherever you are when you need to communicate. Both walking around tokyo and managing communications with others is continual state of crisis management, or perhaps being the "eye of the storm" and simply riding it out is a better metaphor. In my thesis I briefly played with using water metaphors to describe group movement. In Tokyo you join streams of traffic, side-step into eddies and small pools on the side to look at a map, drop into a coffee shop or restaurant to rest your feet and respond to an email. Even the Japanese still have trouble finding the right type of location when they need it, particularly in a city so large that there are always unfamiliar areas.
Japan is experimenting with some cutting edge technologies, but they still fall short of perhaps the holy grail of mobile design and a mobile existence. This goal would be to simply have the information you need, available to you almost without a thought, when you needed it, wherever you are. Living the mobile lifestyle you need to find the nearest mellow coffee shop without a hassle. You need to check the train schedules, and read that Kanna subway sign, and find your current location - even if it is on the 11th floor of a block sized department store. Basically you need to be able to find the resources you want, in a multi-lingual format as rapidly as possible, in an interaction style appropriate for wherever you happen to be. I think this is a reasonable design problem. Nothing in our current technology bars us from doing this. It just requires open standards, internationalisation, simple language translation, location sensing, mapping technologies and very very good interface design and requirements analysis for an extremely diverse user group.
PS- I am trying to post photos of some of this stuff. But my phone doesnt't work here, wi-fi isn't common, and this net cafe is so old the USB slots don't work. Next post I'll find a way to get some photos up. But clearly the days of simplistic moblogging are still a ways off unless you have the perfect setup.