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The Japanese word for a mobile phone or cell phone is keitai denwa ('portable phone'), written in Chinese characters. This is how the word is written in correct or formal prose, including the following:

Kyakuseki de no keitai-denwa no go-shiyō wa...
The use of mobile telephones at tables is...

In popular usage this is abbreviated to keitai ('portable'), as in the following advertisement:

0120-324929 (mi ni yo ku tsu ku = mnemonic device for remembering number)
Do, nichi, shuku mo uketsuke!
Keitai, PHS kara mo OK!

Also accept [enquiries, etc.] on Saturday, Sunday, holidays!
[Calls from] mobiles and PHS also OK!

As a Chinese-style compound read in the on-reading, keitai should by rights be written in Chinese characters. It is now much more common, however, to write it in katakana as keetai. This can be found both in informal writing and in advertising. Examples are easy to find.

Watashi, kirei na keetai
I [like/have] an attractive/pretty mobile

Keetai de totte, meishi o kanri suru.
Take [a photo, snapshot] with a mobile, manage business cards.

Kirei ga hirogaru, ureshii keetai 505i desu.
Attractiveness expands, a glad-to-have mobile 505i.

Notice the very different environments in which keetai occurs.

  • In the first advertisement, the word kirei 'attractive, pretty, clean' is in hiragana. This is quite standard, but the total effect of Watashi, kirei na keetai is clean and uncluttered, in harmony with the message of the advertisement.
  • In the second (bottom) advertisement, the use of katakana is quite idiosyncratic, with several words written in katakana which would not normally be so written. This peculiar usage and the adoption of blue writing attempts to create a specific overall effect. This ad is trying to be young, trendy, and approachable for the non-technical user.
  • By contrast, the advertisement on the right is, with the exception of the word keetai itself, written in quite standard script with heavy use of Chinese characters, including the use of a character to write the Japanese verb toru. This, more than the other two advertisements, brings home how widely keetai in katakana is now accepted in Japanese.

Why the massive shift to? There are several elements involved.

1. The characters are relatively difficult and, more importantly, troublesome to write. The temptation to simplify is overwhelming.

2. Chinese-style compounds rely on Chinese characters to convey their meaning. In general there is psychological resistance to writing such compounds in anything but Chinese characters. However, by dropping the word denwa 'telephone' and passing into mass usage, keitai has become an informal, everyday spoken word, an identifiable phonetic shape in its own right independent of the characters that make it up. There is thus much less psychological resistance to a phonetic-style script (katakana) in place of characters.

3. Hiragana would be possible, but has two problems: unlike katakana, it fails to make the word keitai stand out from the surrounding text, and it looks childish. Katakana is the obvious choice.

The following are the results of a Google search in September 2003:

No. of occurrences

(Note, however, that 'mobile, portable' is found in a wide range of words, not merely in keitai denwa.)


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