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Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Me and cell phones? A really bad connection


The whole world is going to hell in a hand basket, and Japan is leading the way.

That is if, like me, you equate hell with the use of cell phones.

Now I think I am a progressive-minded guy. In most cases I cannot resist new gadgetry and my home is a miniature showcase of other high-tech innovations such as a battery-charged nose-hair clipper, a Homer Simpson talking bottle opener and a rubber fish that can sing.

True, I have not yet popped for one of those cute robot dogs, but only because space in my house is at a premium and I am waiting for Sony to develop a more petite animal that will better match my living quarters. Like perhaps a robot worm or a clam.

And neither have I purchased the leash that is a cellular phone. Nor -- I hereby vow on a stack of gnawed "yakitori" sticks -- will I ever.

Yet to be honest, I do not live in an entirely cell-phone-free environment. My mother-in-law has one of the wicked devices snoozing evilly by her bedside. I can borrow it whenever I want -- which to my way of thinking would be like borrowing a live hand grenade. Why would I ever do that?

For I deem such contraptions to be an affront to my senses. And while I know the entire world is now dependent on mobile phones, I am betting that nowhere is that addiction so rabid as in gizmo-manic Japan.

Step out any Japanese door and one will soon see what dots each and every street in this nation: people. Yet now these flowing minions are highlighted by genuine walkie-talkies, fast-moving individuals who yackety-yak while they stride blindly forward.

"What was that crash?" screams a squeaky cellular friend.

"Oh, I walked into a bus. But no matter. I can still hear you. Keep talking!"

Or glance in any train car and one finds many passengers no longer absorbed in books and papers. Rather they sit transfixed as they flick their cell phones open and closed, as if their focus were drawn by some ghostly inner voice that hauntingly commands, "If you watch it, they will call."

Or stake out any university classroom. When the bell rings and the students come pouring out, each will in turn flip open a cell phone, not unlike Roman foot soldiers unsheathing their blades for combat. "We came," goes their motto, "we saw, we telephoned."

Of course the sounds are as bad as the sights.

It's jarring enough when the stranger beside you suddenly begins to blab into thin air -- "Hey, Taro! How's life? Me? Well, I'm walking next to some runty foreigner and we just passed some gal lying under a bus" -- but at times the content too can be riveting. A la:

"Listen! I don't care what your brother called you; you let him out of the closet now!"

On the train, everyone stops fingering their phones to glance at the pacing mother who screams one further instruction.

"Yes! His snotty friend Kenji too!"

And aren't we all accustomed to this scene . . .

From nowhere comes a loud and tinny -- yet familiar -- tune. Everyone plays tag with their eyes and then all recognize the song at the very same instant. It's the enchanting theme to "Popeye."

No less than three people tear into their bags after their phones, only one of which is piping out the music. While that person answers, the other two ponder some other cool song to use as a ring program. Odds are they will again pick the very same thing, this time perhaps the classic notes of "Camptown Races."

A more recent annoyance is the camera feature that is built into many phones. Now when I nap on the train, I worry over how many Japanese have just e-mailed secret shots of the snoring "gaijin" with his mouth open. But loss of privacy, the argument goes, is a small price to pay for a nifty new phone feature.

On the flip side, I once saw Daiei Hawks heartthrob pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada being chased by a throng of fans with their camera phones aimed like ray guns. They all kept one arm outstretched behind for balance, and thus resembled quick-stepping Egyptian hieroglyphics. Which shows that watching other people lose their privacy can be fun.

While I have never used a cell phone, on one occasion I did come close. I was expecting an important call but had to be out of the house, so my wife suggested taking her mother's cell phone, the grenade.

So I did. All day I was transfixed by the presence of the phone. I kept grabbing my pocket to make sure it was still there, and more than once pressed the device to my ear -- to hear nothing. I waited and waited. Yet no call came.

Back home, I felt somewhat gypped. So I thought it would be fun to call myself, and tried to work it out with me on the cell phone at one end and my singing fish on the house phone at the other. But no dice.

"Grandma's cell phone needs recharging," I told my wife later.

In a moment she had delivered this quick analysis: "You forgot to turn it on."

Embarrassing, but I admit I've done the same thing with my nose hair clippers. That's one reason I prefer my rubber fish; it's far more user friendly. As for the talking bottle opener, I fear Homer Simpson may be affecting my brain worse than phone radiation.

"You know," my wife says, "this phone technology will not disappear. You'll have to get used to it someday."

So? I have to die someday too. And I prefer to meet that day with dignity.

Which -- to my way of thinking -- means living my life without a cellular phone.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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