What is a Keitai? You Probably Already Have One!

Hey man, everybody’s got one. It’s called a Keitai, and you never leave home without it. What is a Keitai you ask?

It’s a cellphone!

I recently got back from a float trip that was pretty far removed from any cities or towns, and nobody in the group had any kind of cellular signal that was strong enough to let them use the internet.

It was calls and texts only, no snapchat or anything like that!

And I have to admit, it’s kind of crazy just how much we use our mobile phones for these days. I had to be in a situation where mine basically became useless for me to realize just how much we all rely on them from day to day.

But getting back to the Japanese word for them:

The full name for cell phones in Japan is 携帯電話けいたいでんわ which translates as “portable telephones,” but just like in English where “cellular phones”  often gets shortened to just “cell,” in Japan the word 携帯電話けいたいでんわ almost always gets shorten to just 携帯けいたい.

The Culture of Keitai

Would you believe that there is a whole culture surrounding 携帯けいたい in Japan? Of course there is!

It helps that the Japanese were on the leading edge of mobile phone technology during the big boom, but it’s also more than just that.

Before smartphones スマートフォン (other loan words include スマフォ or スマホ) took over with their touchscreens and apps, the flip phone was king in Japan!

Why is that?

Well, flip phones had a couple of things going for them that iPhones and Android devices don’t:

  1. Lots of protective casing on both sides of it
  2. A little hole design that was intended for a thread to loop through

What these two things did was allow for people to customize their phones in a way that was special and uniquie to them.

Japan’s culture puts a lot of emphasis on being a part of the group and putting it above your own needs, which is in stark contrast to America’s culture of individuality.

So I’m sure that Keitai Culture is a nice little escape from having to fit into society’s expectations of you. It’s a place where you are totally allowed to be whoever you’d like, and of course you can change it whenever you please!

Most people’s keitai looked something like this:

keitai meaning in japanese

As you can see, there are lots of stickers of anime characters and such. There are also a lot of those charms that you can buy at stores around the country and then tie off.

But you see these kinds of things a lot less now that the world has embraced smartphones. While you can still decorate the back side of an iPhone (or its case), you don’t want to put anything on the screen. Plus there’s not really a spot for the charms.

Although there are probably cases you can buy that still have that little hole where you can loop things.

Talking on the Phone

The classic way to answer a phone in Japan is to say もしもし (moshi moshi) which usually ends up sounding like “moshi-moshhh.”

I read that this comes from the word 申す (mousu) which means “I am called” and when phones first came out, people repeated it twice because they wanted to make sure that they were heard on the other end.

Over time it was shortened to the version that is used today.

I have also heard that people say もしもし when answering the phone because  きつね aren’t able to say it. So when you say もしもし, you are proving that you’re not one of them and the other person doesn’t have to worry about being tricked into anything un-savvy.

  • もしもし、ニックです。涼風ちゃんお願いします。
    Hello, This is Nick. May I speak to Suzuka?

When it comes to texting with Japanese phones, there are a few interesting things.

One of them is the character limit per text. In America we can only send 160 characters per SMS that we send to someone. Anything over that, and it gets put in a second or third message when it is sent.

But Japanese phones are allowed to send 10,000 characters per message! Talk about saving on your allowed texts per month!

This is because Japanese phones actually send an email, and not an SMS to one another. So if you’re wondering why Japense people are always talking about emailing one another, it’s because that’s their version of texting.

Another interesting thing has to do with Japanese numbers 0-9, or what you would see on a phone’s keypad is that, due to the way that the Japanese language works, you can actually spell words by only using these numbers. Here’s an example of what I mean:

The numbers 4649 could be sent to some one to mean よろしく.

4 = よ
6 = ろ (く is left out)
4 = し (another reading for the number four in Japanese)
9 = く

This is actually how messages were sometimes sent over pagers (if you can remember that far back!), but the fact that you can spell words with numbers is also applied when some businesses pick out their phone numbers.

We of course do the same thing in English, so it’s kind of cool to see it appear in other languages as well.

  • 電話番号は四五一ゼロの二五二五、仕事をにこにこです。
    The phone number is 4510-2525, smiley-smiley work.

4 = 
5 =  (the ご part of it)
1 =  (the と part of it)
0 = を
2 = に
5 = こ (こ is the unvoiced counterpart of ご)
2 = に
5 = こ

仕事 = work
にこにこ = *smiling*

Like most mnemonics, these number-word combinations don’t always match up perfectly with one another. But they don’t really need to since they are only intended to trigger your memory of the original meaning.

I’d love to hear what you guys think about all of this!

Do you miss having a flip phone? Would you like text mesasges to have a 10,000 character limit?

Leave a comment below!


  • Nahumbb

    Hi Nick, thank you for sharing this information. I knew that in the Far East they are quite obsessive with mobile phones, but I didn’t knew that there is such a deep culture around it! 

    Come to think about it, few weeks ago I’ve visited a Japanese art museum and they have there an exhibit of this little things called ‘Netsuke’. They were used to tie things on the Kimono. Who knows, maybe the charms tied to the mobile phones are reincarnation of Netsuke to the modern age…

    One mild request/suggestion – when you use the Japanese characters on your post, it will be great for newbies like me if you will link it to the relevant beginners post for the Japanese language.


    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, that’s really interesting about those netsuke for specializing the kimono. I don’t think I’ve really heard too much about them, but now my curiosity is growing. I’m gonna’ have to check it out and see if your suspicions are correct on that one. It would make sense to me, anyway. 

      Yeah, I hear ya’ on the request. Looking back over that post, I had recently learned how to insert furigana above kanji which would allow people who know basic written Japanese how to pronounce them, but it still leaves those who are brand new to Japanese in the dust. 

      Here are two pages for newbies to check out if the above post on keitai was a little above your skill level:

      1. Learn how to speak Japanese.
      2. Learn how to read Hiragana.

      The overall site is still fairly new and I haven’t quite figured out the exact format that I want to use when typing in Japanese.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      • Nahum

        Hi Nick, Thank you for your response and for the suggested pages to start with as a newbie.

        I’ve already checked the first one. Although learning Japanese was not on my schedule at the moment (currently busy with other language), you sure got me intrigue, moving Japanese up on the list 🙂

        • Nick Hoyt

          Hey man, it is my pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to read it, and let me know your thoughts on the matter.

          There’s a lot of great information out there from the language learning community, and it’s certainly not limited to just Japanese. Good luck with your studies!

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