by Tracey Northcott, Vice President of Enfour, Inc.

Ever wondered about the mysterious features and functions of Japanese mobile phones? Most Japanese users know the benefits of using their mobile phones as their first port of call to the internet and for many people, this is their main internet contact. Those of us from outside Japan, think of mobile phones as devices primarily for, you know, making phone calls or sending texts. With good cause; most of the services and many of the handset functions have, up to now, only been shown in Japanese. Bilingual services are there, but a bit tricky to find, so it is a good time as any to investigate how this technology can benefit you in your daily life.

Time for an Upgrade? You may look at upgrading your phone to enjoy the seemingly endless new features—want to start using a mega-pixel camera, download and play MP3’s while on your daily commute, keep your business and personal life in order, improve your Japanese with a daily study program? Short of making you a coffee or taking out the trash, recently released bilingual handsets can do almost everything.

But will the packet fees blow the budget? Over the last few years, fierce competition between the carriers has led to lower prices and better monthly plans. If you stay with the same carrier it usually costs nothing to switch plans at any time. Remember that the cheapest base plan on paper may not actually be the cheapest option overall so it pays to do some homework. I swear by the various “Packet-Houdai” plans as they really are “All you can eat” plans that give you a fl at rate for all of your data usage.

Your first stop should be with your carrier to make sure you have the best plan for your lifestyle and your current handset. Visit one of the larger branded stores—the staff is always helpful and there is often someone on staff who has good English. They will look at your voice and packet use over the past few months and often recommend a better-priced plan.

Tricks and Tips. A few sneaky tricks-of-the-trade to reduce your monthly bill yet still benefit from the multitude of mobile content sites.

1. Only visit sites that are designed for viewing on a mobile phone. These are under the main menu of your handset. All carriers offer a menu of English sites—usually found when you scroll to the end of the Japanese top page.

Theoretically, you can input any valid URL into your phone or use the search engine on the top page, but if the site is not designed to reformat the content for a small screen, you will be paying for a whole heap of graphics that are probably not compatible with your phone anyway.

2. Use bookmarks instead of browsing through menus to take you to favorite sites quickly and cheaply. Better yet, use the “Screen Memo” function available from the menu of most handsets. This saves the pages that you use frequently in the memory of the phone. It is only when you click on the links of the saved page that you start to incur fees. Check the manual of your handset for full instructions on this secret money saving feature.

3. Remember that sending and receiving photos on your phone via email or using HTML email is packet heavy so decide if you really want to be sending all those cute photos and graphics to your friends. If this is part of your lifestyle then you really should switch to a better plan to save your cash.

Tracey Northcott is Vice President of Enfour, Inc. a Tokyo-based mobile contents solution provider. Enfour’s is one of the original and most popular English mobile sites that offers user-friendly and sophisticated Japanese language reference and learning materials.