Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Mobile Phones: An Innovative Approach to Outreach in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any amount of time has noticed the pervasive use of mobile phones (Keitai denwa - 携帯電話, hereafter "keitai" for short) everywhere, from restaurants to trains to stores. Keitai are becoming the primary method of communication for Japanese young people, even eclipsing the use of computers.

The Numbers
69 million Japanese people access the internet on their mobile phones. This is more than the number of Japanese PC internet users.

The average Japanese high school student uses her keitai for two hours a day (notice I say her, since on average girls use their keitai slightly more than boys). Yet the average students talks for less than 10 minutes a day, with the vast majority of that two hours being email and internet usage. This trend of using one's keitai primarily for email and internet, and not actual talking, is actually true of nearly all keitai users, not just students and young people.

Computer illiteracy is a growing problem among Japanese youth, as many of them are completely bypassing computer usage and using only their keitai for all electronic communication. This trend is only expected to increase in the coming years.

How it works (techno jargon)

Email on keitai

All Japanese keitai come with their own email address, usually ending in,, or, for the cases of NTT Docomo, Softbank, and AU, for example. You can send email from your keitai to someone else’s keitai or PC email address, or you can send email from your computer to a keitai the exact same way as sending email to another PC, with no extra steps required. Sending email is the primary method of using keitai in Japan, by far eclipsing actual talking.

Internet on keitai
All modern keitai are able to view the internet. Keitai internet websites are specially formatted to be viewed on small screens and slower data connections. Many of Japan's most popular websites actually receive more visitors on their keitai site than their PC site, reflecting the trend of moving away form PCs and towards mobile.

A blog is an online journal that others can view. Japanese are the most prolific bloggers in the world, with some 37% of all blogs in the world being in Japanese, where as English comes in second at 36%. Both individuals as well as businesses in Japan use blogging as a way to connect with people. Since this is such an established medium for communication and most people are familiar with it, it is probably a great opportunity for the Christian community to connect with Japanese. Blogs in Japan can easily be both viewed as well as written from either a computer or a keitai.

QR Codes
A "QR Code" is a square-shaped barcode-like image you have probably seen on signs and handouts. A QR code represents an encoded block of text, usually containing a keitai website address and contact information. All Japanese keitai come with the ability to take a picture of these QR codes ("barcode scan" mode). Once the QR code is snapped by a keitai, the decoded website and/or contact info is displayed on one's keitai phone for easy access.
QR Code Flow

1) The QR code you would like to scan

2) Put your phone in barcode reader mode and snap the QR code

3) After successfully snapping the QR code, it shows up on your screen. You can now click
on the decoded website to visit it

4) The actual keitai website on the phone's browser

An Opportunity for Sharing
One of the phenomenon happening with internet usage in Japan is that since it is relatively anonymous, Japanese people are more open about sharing there than in real life. For example, on Facebook, America’s most popular social networking site, more than 90% of users use their real name and real picture on their profile. By contrast, on mixi, Japan’s most popular social networking site, less than 5% of users use their real name and real picture.

Therefore it is not hard to find Japanese people engaging in discussions on their blogs or internet forums that they would not do in real life, perhaps even more so than their Western counterparts. This means using the internet may be a key way to get Japanese to open up at the heart level, in different ways than might be possible in person.

Furthermore, since, unlike a computer, one's keitai is on one's person all the time, Japanese are able to engage in online sharing much more frequently than on the PC. As a result, one recent study found that Japanese people engage in the deepest online relationships using their mobile phones, and shallower online relationships using PCs. This would suggest that the keitai, as opposed to the PC, may be a good medium to get Japanese people to open up more deeply about spiritual and other issues.


The following are some concrete steps that you, or the tech person at your church or ministry, can use to get your mobile presence up and running quickly

• Create a mobile portal for your church. You don't need to create a brand new website from the ground up, rather you can sign up at one of the existing popular web portals (see below) and create your own profile and blog within minutes.
• Create a QR code for your mobile portal, and put in on your church flyer, business cards and posters. This way Japanese can easily access your church's contact info and mobile portal.
• Create a keitai mailing list, to send daily or weekly Bible verses, announcements, or other info, to your church members keitai.

Easily create your own QR code for free

Mixi - The most popular social networking site in Japan, with more than 16 million users. Create a community for your church, and join the existing Christian communities

FC2 is a popular blogging website in Japan, and unlike most other sites, has an English interface

楽天 (Rakuten), a popular blogging service with both PC and mobile interfaces
Ameba, another very popular blogging service, also with good PC and mobile support

About the Author

I (John Gibbs) am a missionary to Japan with WorldVenture, specializing in equipping the Japanese Christian community with mobile phone evangelism, discipleship and (online) community.

I typically employ nearly all of the strategies noted above in my advice and services to Japanese churches, in addition to constantly looking for better and more effective ways to encourage Japanese Christians and non-Christians to communicate online. For example, churches are usually equipped with a QR code for their Sunday handouts, event posters, and business cards. I also urge churches to start a blog on one of the above services. Additionally, I create a mobile website for each church or organization, and show them how to update it. A message board is always attached to the church's website, and while brainstorming with the pastor, we find ways to get people talking on the message board (i.e. daily Bible study reflections, prayer board, etc).

As for my personal background, I came to Japan in mid-2008, before which I was a software engineer in silicon valley for 7 years. I was motivated for missions by taking the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course in the fall of 2007. I plan to stay in Japan for the long-term, bridging the gap between the gospel and nonbelievers using technology or any other means available.

I can be contacted at: john at worldventure dot net