A chat-roulette for smartphones: this is the new fad that is sweeping over Japan.
With more than 2.6 million users – nearly the same as Osaka’s population – the Japanese program known as “Mr. Saitō” (斉藤さん) lets you speak to strangers on a VoIP (voice-over-internet protocol) connection. Download it, press a button and voilà, you can establish a phone conversation with someone at random in Japan. Optionally, both parties can see each other by utilizing the smartphone’s inbuilt camera. Strange, but oddly appreciated among youngsters.
Asahi News writes that the application is being used an average of 1.8 million times a day. It has gone viral since its inception. An iPhone version has been out for some time and the Android version was released January this year.
In an interview on ITmedia with Mr. Saitō’s creator, Reo Nagumo, we are told that the majority of its users are high-school and university students. Although there is no accurate data regarding the user’s gender, they believe the figure to be roughly 70% males and 30% females.
It works like this: you can choose to be Mr. Saitō or not. If you’re Mr. Saitō, you click the “I'm Mr. Saitō” button. Otherwise, you click “Speak to Mr. Saitō.” By so doing, a connection is established at random with another user in Japan. The speakers can read each other’s profiles and send a maximum of ten messages. Although it is impossible to reconnect with the same person twice, if one so desires, the ten messages can be used to exchange personal data such as e-mail addresses or phone numbers. However, Mr. Saitō's aim is to enable users to communicate in a once-in-a-lifetime encounter – something Mr. Nagumo refers to as “ichi go ichi e,” which roughly translates to “each moment, only once.” This has a positive meaning in Japanese: it implies cherishing the unique moments of one’s life as they come.
On Twitter, mentions for the keyword Mr. Saitō are exploding. User @watawata_aic writes, “I spoke to all nice people today!” But not everyone is that fortunate: @hanapiyos comments, “there are only creeps on Mr. Saitō.”
The more calls are made, the more “Saitō” seals appear in a grid on the screen. There is nothing in particular that happens as seals are accumulated, but as the developer Mr. Nagumo explains, this function provides an element of mystery, which encourages the user to call more times. Although ostensibly useless, the concept behind the seals was important during the development of the app in order to encourage frequent use as well as breaking the ice with strangers.
When prompted about the app’s name, Nagumo said, “There are many surnames in Japan such as Tanaka (田中) and Saitō (佐藤, which is different from the app's name, 斉藤). Truth be told, we don't even have a Mr. Saitō at our company. We just thought it would be a playful jest.”
The idea arose in August 2011, when Mr. Nagumo was having some drinks with two friend designers. “It's a funny thing I'd like to see happen” he thought. Mr. Nagumo had previously released Live Link 3G, which ranked 1st on the Japanese App Store. This gave him enough confidence to delve into something he thought would be strange, amusing and a bit funny at the same time. Always quick to have a drink, he wrote the specifications for the app while inebriated and handed them to the development team. They worked on and completed the software in two days.
A Korean version called “Pak Il-jok” has just been released, and an English version - “Mr. Smith” - as well as a Chinese version - “Mr. Wang” are also in the works.
To generate revenue, the company is planning to leverage its VoIP technology, which Mr. Nagumo is confident can help grow his business despite competition from other voice-over-internet apps such as Viber and Skype.
The development team seems to think the concept is fun, and perhaps its users do as well. Others may think that ephemeral dialogues with strangers could be symptomatic of an increasingly isolated and lonely society. A recent report from researchers at the NLI Institute points to the fact that by 2020, living alone will be the norm in Japan. But while there’s still time, might as well put Mr. Saitō to good use and make as many (human) connections as possible.