TOKYO — With her green handbag, pastel- pink jacket, and stiletto sandals the color of bubble gum, Risa Sakamoto is the picture of teenage haute couture. But what really makes her fashionable is what she's got on her mobile phone: a meru tomo.
That's "mail friend," a new term in Japan's pop culture lexicon to denote friends who exist only through e-mail.
"No, we've never met," gushes Risa, revealing that she's had a meru tomo boyfriend for about a year.
Meru tomo are becoming popular across a range of age groups. Users carry on relationships with friends they've only typed to, often feeling free to discuss problems considered off-limits in everyday Japanese conversation.
For some observers, it's a sign that new technology is helping this famously reticent nation communicate more.
But to others, the Internet-linked gadget that seems to be attached to the palm of every businessman and schoolgirl alike is encouraging people to shy away from real face-to-face - or at least voice-to-voice - communication.
"These machines are good, because people are communicating more," says Hayao Kawai, one of Japan's best-known clinical psychologists. "But there is so much concern for the benefits of this machine that we forget that the person-to-person relationship is very important, too." Thanks to phones with Web access, users can receive real-time news headlines - so the average Japanese man "knows everything in the world," says Dr. Kawai, "but he doesn't know what his wife is thinking."
Nearly half of all Japanese own cellphones (about 38 percent of Americans use them). According to the Telecommunications Carriers Association, there were 58.73 million mobile phone subscribers as of the end of January. More than half of those use mobile Internet services, a 9.1 percent jump from the previous month.
Chalk it up to high phone charges or typically small homes where there's little room for a PC: Either way, most Japanese prefer to get to the Web by mobile phones. Japanese say they are ideal for people with long commutes; laptops won't do in crowded subway cars. But more often than not, the Japanese seem to spend much of their time composing e-mail on their phones, not talking on them.
"I can write whatever I can't say in person," says Yoshimasa Sugihara, a 20-something hairdresser, as his thumb drummed out a message to his girlfriend as if it were a jazz tune. Adds another young man, "Writing mail is cheaper." He spends about $100 a month for his bills, and messages sent can save thousands of yen in phone charges.
Others use phone e-mail more often than they speak into the receiver because - in a country where courtesy is supreme - many worry about catching someone at an inconvenient moment.
At websites such as "Excite Furenzu," or Excite Friends, run by Excite Japan Co., Ltd., close to a million users can check in on friend-meeting rooms for fans of pachinko, or those who like to talk about their favorite convenience stores. Support-seeking categories run the gamut: college prep students under stress, new mothers on maternity leave, salarymen with problems on the job, women who can't stand their mothers-in-law, elderly caregivers, cocaine addicts.
"Going to counseling is not so common in Japan yet," says Junko Imada, of Excite Japan's marketing department, "so it's a place for people with these problems at least to find out that there are other people with similar problems."
Excite has encouraged the anonymous meru tomo phenomenon with mini-mail, a system by which mobile phone users can mail virtual friends without actually giving out their phone numbers.
"If you talk on the phone, you'd have to give out your number, so mail is much more convenient for that reason," adds Ms. Imada. In e-mail, she says, the type of Japanese people use becomes far more direct, a curious transformation from the rather passive and impersonal speech that usually dominates conversation among strangers. "In e-mail, you can take action with what you say much more boldly than if you were saying it in person, or if they had your number," she says. "It also gives you more time to think about what you're saying."
Some say it all sounds about as healthy as Risa's stiletto sandals that leave her feet half-exposed, all the rage even as the winter temperature hovers near freezing. On the eve of Valentine's Day, one Tokyo television station focused on how young people are pursuing "virtual love" through meru tomo.
"It really typifies how young people relate to each other," says Yuko Kawanishi, a sociology professor at the Temple University, Japan. "They think that the more meru tomo they have on their phone, the more friends they have - and they start thinking that these are real friends."
Says Mariko Kuno Fujiwara, research director of the Institute of Life and Living, in Tokyo: "One very obvious explanation is an escape. With meru tomo, they don't have to disclose their true identities."
Moko, a Japanese high school student interviewed online, says that when she's met her meru tomo in person, "many of them had a made-up personality. They were totally different when I saw them."
For many, however, the goal is not to meet a meru tomo in the flesh. Says Risa, "you don't see their faces, so you can talk more honestly."
Osada Saori, a university student, says that she will avoid meeting her meru tomo - even though they both live in Tokyo and have been in contact for about nine months. "It's a better relationship because you don't see the person's face," says Ms. Saori. "It's kind of a fake thing - meeting on the Internet," she adds, looking down at her tiny phone with a smirk. "But I think it's better for me not to meet him. I wouldn't want to be disappointed."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society