"Yuya Kato uses the Net to go surfing -- in the ocean. Thanks to his new mobile phone, Kato is able to quickly view simple Web information on weather, wind speed and wave heights at his favorite beach.
"``I rarely use this phone for talking,'' said Kato, who works for a Tokyo film distributor and hits the beach on the weekends. ``I just get on, get the information I want and get off.''
"So much for conventional Web surfing.
"Despite its love for just about everything high-tech, Japan has been surprisingly slow to go online, lagging behind Europe and the United States in Internet use. But the nation has been one of the fastest to get hooked on cell phones -- and a new generation of mobile devices with Internet capabilities is setting off a revolution that could put Japan on the fore of cyberspace.
"Japan's passion for the portable phone is legendary. There are over 53 million of them in use -- meaning about two for every five Japanese.
"But only about 11 percent of Japanese homes are connected to the Internet, compared to 37 percent in the United States.
"The main reason is cost. Fees for local calls in Japan make it expensive to go online via conventional telephones, unlike the U.S. where the call is generally free. And Japanese consumers have been slow to buy personal computers, the main route to the Internet.
"Net phones, introduced here for the first time in February, solve these problems.
"They cost little more than regular mobile phones, and users are charged only for the information they download. For the price of a new handset and an extra few hundred yen (a few dollars) a month, the average user gains access to everything from movie listings to news headlines to video games.
``The mobile Internet has very substantial potential in Japan,'' Merrill Lynch senior analyst Mahendra Negi wrote in a recent report. He said that the trend could help Japan catch up to U.S. Internet usage.
"Japan also could open up an important technological front.
"To make Web phones, software developers need to refit Web pages to a business-card size screen. The challenge is easier for Japanese developers, who already have crammed multiple functions and crystal-clear LCD screens into some of the world's tiniest digital handsets.
"The United States, meanwhile, is struggling with the transition, and is just starting to test Web phones for consumers. Part of the problem is the plethora of U.S. mobile phone standards.
"Japan, on the other hand, will become in 2001 the first country to launch an advanced ``third generation'' Web phone, which will offer faster Internet access and video display, as well as allow callers to use the same number and handset worldwide.
"Japan won't control the industry, since the international community is moving toward a global standard for mobile service designed to prevent any one country's dominance.
"But the nation's knack for miniaturizing mobile phones may one day be in high demand all over the world.
"Leading the movement is Japan's top telecommunications firm, NTT DoCoMo.
"The company in February introduced its ``i-mode'' service, which allows users to log onto the Internet for about $2.90, plus a charge based on the volume of information that is downloaded.
"So far, the service has nearly 3 million subscribers, and industry forecasts predict the number could reach 4.5 million over the next three months.
"``From here on out, the number of people on the Internet via cell phones is only going to go up,'' said Mitsuhiro Kurano, a spokesman for rival Japan Telecom, which on Dec. 10 launched its own Internet-capable phone.