Cellphones and Rainy Seasons

May 30, 2009

Right now I’m stuck in a waiting period, which has been beyond dull in our now-empty apartment. Darrel is on a three-week underway assignment, so I’ve been by myself filling the days rather slowly and painfully.

It’s been an excellent chance to catch up on some long over-due reading, but sadly there’s little to do with Japan or preparing for Japan I’ve had a chance to share. However, there are a couple of topics I thought might be worth mentioning: rainy seasons and cellphone purchase.

One of the main things that concerned me when picking out my traveling wardrobe was the weather. Every single time I’ve been to Japan, I’ve had the sorry misfortune to have been traveling in August, which has a humidity and heat level I am completely unable to handle. I like to cite the fact I’m from southern Arizona as the reason I cannot cope with humidity. Living in New York allowed me to learn to deal with it, but by “deal” I mean lay sprawled out on the floor with a bag of frozen peas on my head.

However, we’re arriving in June, and the weather is remarkably different in this month. The old word for June in Japanese is Minatsuki which I’ve read means “the month of water,” amongst others. This is the time of the infamous tsuyu or rainy season in Japan. Apparently, Hokkaido is the only part of Japan which isn’t affected by this daily drizzle which continues from May to July. The Japanese Meteorological Agency makes an official announcement of tsuyuiri and tsuyuake, the beginning and the end of the rainy season.

Koromogae, or the seasonal change of clothes, also starts on June 1st. I’m not so sure with modern wardrobes how common this still is in Japan, but I’ve heard this is also the time anti-dampness measures are taken in households to prevent against mildew for bedclothes and garments. Conversely, October 1st is the day that winter wardrobes are switched into.  School and office uniforms are also changed on these days. For kimono, the rules are more complicated as to what you should wear, so I won’t delve into that here.

(I think I’ll try to add a little bit about each month as a regular feature, I think there’s something interesting going on in every single one of them.)

The other noteworthy item for today’s entry is the equally famous Japanese cellphone. Even people who aren’t active pursuants of Japanese news have likely come across American reports of the very advanced and dynamic market for cellphones in Japan. For example, they’ve been on the 3G network since 2001, and even now companies are delving into a 4G network. The phones boast superior product and interface designs, and have been multifunctional long before the advent of the iPhone in America. Japanese cellphones could GPS navigate, electronically transfer funds, function as a train pass and more. They were much faster to hop on the wagon for features like surfing the net, finding restaurants, reading news, or composing the “keitai novels” which had hit a fad high a few years ago. If the iPhone has expanded this to an American audience, it does so at a premium price–and from only one product model.

Mobile phones are available from three main providers, NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and SoftBank, with a respective 53%, 30% and 17.4% of the market share. NTT DoCoMo, the largest, is famous for introducing its internet service, i-mode, a few years ago, which drew a tremendous amount of subscribers. Service rates range between 3700-4400 yen (some 34-40 dollars) per month. There are many discount plans available from each provider. However, despite all this appeal, there is one major hitch for foreign buyers.

Because of abuses by past foreign users who racked up large bills and then simply left the country, rules for subscribing have become more stringent. Many carriers now require a Certificate of Alien Registration, and some also require a Japanese bank account. The bank account set up is another thing requiring a lot of registration information. I’m not sure if I will even have a Certificate of Alien Registration, which is something I’m going to have see about when we’re in orientation week over in Yokosuka, due to my military sponsorship status. I’m not sure how the two governments handle us on paper, but I’ll find out.

However, even if you’re unable to obtain the following requirements, you can also rent cellphones, even 3G phones. When Darrel came back from Japan in September, he had purchased a SoftBank pre-paid phone to call me on. We still have this phone, although it’s been de-activated. It’s a really slick number–much cooler looking than plenty of high-end US phones, and the user interface is extremely chic.  It was also one of the cheaper models, I don’t think it’s 3G. We’re likely to use this phone when we first arrive.

You can rent phones straight at the airport, or even reserve them online ahead of time. Some of the online companies are Cellular Aboard, Rentaphone Japan, and SoftBank. Other options include renting 3G SIM cards for a Japanese phone you’ve purchased yourself, or to keep your own SIM card from your home provider and sign up for an international calling plan, then renting a 3G Japanese phone. You keep your own number, but this is expensive due to international rates.

Here’s the English version of the SoftBank webpage: http://mb.softbank.jp/en/

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