Traveling thoughts on digital addiction, Japanese trains and our obsession with cellphones | Technicalities | Colorado Springs Independent

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Before a recent trip to japan, I was told that cell phone use was forbidden while riding on trains. What I witnessed while there, though, was a little different from the idea I had in my head. It is true that talking on a cellphone is strictly forbidden on Japan’s trains. Passengers are reminded via overhead speakers in both Japanese and English that talking on the phone is not allowed and phones should be set in “Manners” mode, the Japanese term for silent. As a matter of fact, the name “Manners mode” is an indication of the Japanese mindset when it comes to interactions in public settings. In America, we use our mobile phones almost anywhere — there’s no place nor time too sacred. Public places such as libraries, restaurants and even churches aren’t off limits to those that are fixated (read: addicted) to their phones. But even for most of us, cellphone use has become continuous, interrupted only by forced inactivity. For example, in most educational institutions cellphone use is not allowed in the classroom. Students use their cellphones between classes and put them away during class, but when the class is over they take out their cell phones before they even get out of their seats, and stay connected until the start the next class. It’s become a motor reflex. And we’ve all witnessed “that table” in the restaurant, where everyone uses their phones, sometimes even simultaneously. Even intimate communications between couples sometimes come to a halt as both people take out their phones to retreat to their own bubble for a few minutes. It’s annoying. Like Americans, the Japanese are clearly enamored with their mobile devices. At the busiest intersection in the world, the Shibuya Street Crossing in Tokyo, as many as 2,500 (numbers vary wildly) people traverse the crosswalks every time their light turns green. Many of those people are texting and talking on their phones, totally oblivious to the people surrounding them, the crazy thing is they rarely bump into each other.

Still, I almost expected to see zero phones on the trains of Japan, but it turns out you can do almost anything else with your phone except carry on an actual conversation. Based on my (confused American) observations, I would say that a conservative estimate on cell phone use on Japan’s trains is still a strong 75%, with passengers mostly playing games, sending texts, browsing social media sites or reading and watching the news.

It got me to thinking: of all the functions and activities we interact with on our cellphones, actually talking is the least addictive of those activities. Games, texting and social media are the activities that drive most people do to stay tethered to their phones during bulk of their waking hours. And rules like those on Japanese trains don’t really put a dent in digital addiction — especially when people already aren’t doing the one thing you’re asking them not to do. Back in the states, I conduct a regular exercise in the high school technology class I teach. Students are asked to name 25 activities they do with their cellphones. Talking is almost never in the top ten — sometimes not even in the top 20. Why do we even call them phones? But I digress, Japan’s rule on talking on the cellphone during train rides may have more to do with their culture than it does curbing the actual use of mobile devices. In Japan, a higher standard of respect and the well-being of the collective has existed long before the arrival of cellphones — the Japanese are trying to fit technology into pre-existing culture norms and laws, just like any other modern country. The world is trying to come to grips with the use of cellphones and we don’t have enough data to know the long-term effects of our digital addiction yet. But rules like Japan’s ban on talking on the phone train rides at least offers an small island of civility, for a little while.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at, and his photography at



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Thomas Holt Russell

Thomas Holt Russell

Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.