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The Culture of Cell Phone Charms

A 2000s-era Japanese cell phone decorated with Maki-e stickers and several different cell phone charms.

A 2000s-era Japanese cell phone decorated with Maki-e stickers and several different cell phone charms.


Ever since the dawn of the "cell phone era" during the late 1990s and early 2000s, cute little charms have decorated cell phones all over the world. In Japan and elsewhere in Asia, they have become a cultural phenomenon.

In many ways, this phenomenon is akin to the "peace patches" worn by hippies in the US during the 1960s-70s, the music buttons of the 1980s, or the keystraps of the 1990s all rolled into one massive fad. However, many of these charms have meanings that go much deeper than a mere pop culture fad. What most Westerners don't know is that some of these charms have their roots in ancient Japanese, Chinese, and Korean culture that go far beyond modern-day fashion and technology.

In this article we'll explore the origins of the cell phone charm, some of the varieties found in Asia (i.e. mainland China and Korea), and beyond, and the culture surrounding them. So please, read on and enjoy!

NOTE: This article is not affiliated in any way, shape or form with any of the characters, corporations, or merchandise lines mentioned herein. All characters, movies, and merchandise are copyrighted by their respectful owners and/or artists.

Japanese Phone Charms at Amazon

Japanese Cell Phone Charms

The one country that can be considered the "capital" of phone charms is Japan. Japan has a highly-evolved, unique cell phone culture that predates Western cell phones by nearly a decade.

Charms have been enormously popular among the Japanese people since the dawn of the "cell phone era" in the late 1990s or so. They have not only become an essential part of kawaii fashion, but serve practical uses for adults as well. They also express the owner's individuality and personal passions.

Cell phone charms of all kinds can be found across the country, but some of the most popular include the following characters (many of which are virtually unknown outside of Japan):

  • Hello Kitty. More about Hello Kitty phone charms is discussed in the section below.
  • Tare-panda. One of earliest animated characters to be featured as a cell phone charm was San X's sleepy panda Tare-panda (meaning "lazy panda" in English). When Tare-panda - and the merchandise featuring its likeness - debuted to the Japanese public in 1995, its popularity spread like wildfire. By the end of 1999, 30 billion yen worth of Tare-panda merchandise had been sold nationwide and this included cell phone charms. According to San-X, Tare-panda was viewed as a symbol of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and this helps explain its initial popularity. It's reasonable to assume that this explains its popularity as a cell phone charm as well.
  • Doraemon. This cute cat from the future has had a special place in Japanese culture since 1968. Doraemon manga has been a staple classic for 45 years among children and adults alike and the Doraemon cartoon series of the 1990s-early 2000s further boosted his popularity worldwide. It's only natural that Doraemon charms have decorated the phone of many a Japanese schoolgirl for as long as cell phone charms have been around!
  • Docomodake. The mascot of Japan's largest cell phone network, NTT DoCoMo, is also a huge celebrity and a major franchise line in Japan! The giant mushroom Docomodake can be seen on countless cell phones across the nation.
  • Rilakkuma. This bear, whose name means "relax bear" in English, debuted to the Japanese public in 2003 and quickly became a phenomenal hit. Rilakkuma merchandise - including cell phone charms - has been selling like hotcakes for a decade strong and has become a major character in kawaii culture.
  • The Totoro. When Hayao Miyazaki released his classic anime film My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ) in 1988, it quickly became a Japanese children's classic and a part of the then-emerging kawaii culture. Movie merchandise has remained consistently popular in Japan and abroad and the grinning Totoro can be found hanging from countless kawaii girls' cell phones! Since My Neighbor Totoro is a movie about the innocence and imagination of children, the Totoro has become a beloved stuffed pet and a symbol of innocence for many.
  • Maneki Neko. One figure from Japanese culture that has been used as a lucky charm for well over a century is the Maneki neko, or "lucky cat". This instantly-recognizable cat, with its paw held upright in the air, has been one of Japan's most famous "mascots" and a lucky charm for many Japanese (and beyond) since at least the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). Maneki neko cell phone charms are very popular and can be found in stores and elsewhere all over Japan.
  • Kewpie Doll. Kewpie dolls and kewpie phone charms are a cultural phenomenon in Japan that have sold in the millions. Many varieties of kewpie charms can be found, including adult varieties and grotesque versions that have terrified many a gaijin (foreigner) who have stumbled upon them in Japan or on the Internet!

Of course other cell phone charms have been just as popular in Japan! Characters from the anime series InuYasha and Anpanman, Space Invaders aliens, and many other characters than can possibly be listed in this hub have all been made into phone charms.

Japanese cell phone charms can do more than just look cute. Some charms are functional and can serve as pill cases, phone speakers, perfume/fragrance sprayers, loose change and candy holders, and even as a "ghost-repeller". Others flash when there's an incoming call and bring the owner good luck. And a few even have more bizarre purposes, such as detecting aliens!

In addition to charms themselves, cell phone straps - or "keitai straps" (keitai being the Japanese word for 'cell phone') have become a major fashion accessory! They can be found hanging from the cell phones of not only schoolgirls and kawaii girls, but the phones of businessmen as well! They can be purchased from stores such as strap/charm shops or souvenir shops throughout Japan. A few are even designed by top fashion designers such as Gucci and are very pricey. Other straps found in Japan range from giant furry stuffed animals to squishy iced doughnuts that are bigger than the cell phones themselves!

There's no doubt that kawaii reigns supreme in Japan and that cuteness explains a large part of the popularity of Japanese cell phone charms. However, phone charms are part of a Japanese tradition that predates cell phones by many centuries.....

An Edo period "trick netsuke" of Daikoku's hammer. When opened, an ivory netsuke of Japanese folk hero Urashima Taro appears in the hammer.

An Edo period "trick netsuke" of Daikoku's hammer. When opened, an ivory netsuke of Japanese folk hero Urashima Taro appears in the hammer.

Souvenir omamori of Mt. Fuji.

Souvenir omamori of Mt. Fuji.

The Netsuke and Omamori Connections

The cell phone charms of today's Japan are part of a tradition dating back many centuries to the Omamori amulets and netsuke (根付) of ancient Japan. To the people living in these times, these were their equivalent of phone charms.

Netsuke are intricately-carved miniature sculptures that were used for fastening kimono "pockets" during Japan's Edo period (1603-1868). They depicted everything from figures in Japanese folklore and legend to legendary animals such as the tiger and the dragon. Most importantly of all, to people living in the time, they were cute! This is one reason why netsuke carvings have survived into the modern day - and why cell phone charms are so popular in Japan today. Just like the netsuke of centuries ago, cell phone charms are not only cute, but practical as well.

In our modern era, netsuke has become an art form, but when they were first created, netsuke sculptures were an invention of necessity. Since traditional Japanese kimonos don't have pockets, people living in ancient Japan were forced to hang containers, or sagemono, from their kimono sashes to use as an external pocket. In order to keep them closed, a cord was strung through the sagemono and the netsuke was drawn up to its bottom. It worked very much like a modern-day drawstring.

Another popular cell phone charm coming out of traditional Japanese culture and spiritualty are Omamori amulets. These have been used for good luck and protection from evil spirits for many centuries and are very common finds on cell phones. Some omamori serve a specific purpose, such as protection from illness, prosperity in business or romance, and even protection for pets and from traffic accidents! Nowadays omamori can often be found on cell phones. Traditional omamori are sometimes blended with the Maneki neko or popular anime and manga characters such as Doraemon in certain charms.

Many other charms have their roots in the country's traditional handicrafts. Miniature wooden kokeshi dolls, woven temari balls, and handmade Maneki neko charms are very common finds on cell phones. They are popular among Japanese and gaijin alike!

Teru teru bozu hanging in the control room of the Subaru telescope in Japan.

Teru teru bozu hanging in the control room of the Subaru telescope in Japan.

Teru Teru Bozu

Also hanging from many Japanese cell phones are homemade ghost-like dolls known as teru teru bozu (てるてる坊主, or 'shine shine monk' in English). These dolls, which are actually supposed to represent Buddhist monks rather than ghosts, have been made and hung by Japanese for centuries in order to keep rainy weather away. They are traditionally made from paper or cloth, but some are also made with modern day materials such as yarn. They are strange but cute little guys that have become part of Japanese tradition and culture!

Miniature teru teru bozu have also become popular cell phone charms! Premade ones can be purchased online or in brick and mortar stores or they can be made by hand, as they have been for centuries.

Decoden in Japan

Decoden (Or simply "deco". Deco="decorate" and den="phone") is a way of decorating cell phones with beads, minature charms, and more.This form of decoration is a popular way for Japanese ladies to decorate their cell phones. Many phones use charms and beads that hang from the phone, and others use applique patterns. Pictures of hearts, crowns, butterflies, roses, Hello Kitty, portraits of celebrities, and more made from beads are among some of the most common decoden decorations. Also, charms such as miniature doughnuts or anime characters can be found glued on a phone in decoden fashion.

During the 2000s, it was not unusual to find cell phones decorated with Swarovski crystal beads and other expensive jewels or beads that could run into the tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of US dollars)!

Over the past few years or so, decoden has started to spread outside of Japan and is gradually becoming popular worldwide.

Hello Kitty Cell Phone Charms at Amazon

Hello Kitty Cell Phone Charms

The one character that has remained among the world's most beloved cell phone charms for well over a decade is Japan's most famous cat: Hello Kitty! Hello Kitty has remained one of Japan's most popular characters and exports since she debuted to the world in 1974, and has remained a staple of kawaii culture since it started taking off in the 1980s and 90s.

Hello Kitty phone charms have been manufactured by Sanrio since at least the late 1990s when the cell phone revolution started getting underway. They - along with other Hello Kitty merchandise - started making their way around the world at that same period of time when her popularity exploded and she picked up high-profile celebrity fans!

In Japan, there are many types of Hello Kitty charms unique to different areas of the country, as well as special commemorative charms (i.e. for various festivals and sporting events in Japan) and souvenir charms for particular locations. These charms are known as "Gotochi Kitty" (Gotochi meaning "unique to this area" in Japanese) charms. These charms have become highly collectible among Hello Kitty collectors, particularly those who live in or visit Japan. For example, Gotochi Kitty charms from Hokkaido are winter-themed and depict Hello Kitty dressed in winter gear. Charms from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market depict Hello Kitty holding a fish and wearing a headband. Many Gotochi Kitty charms depict her in traditional Japanese clothing or as legendary Japanese figures from history and folklore.

Outside of Japan, Hello Kitty has a far bigger fanbase than what she has at home. She is the official Japanese tourist mascot of mainland China and Hong Kong and has an international line of restaurants, shops and jet airliners. She even has a maternity hospital in Taiwan! While her popularity may be on the wane in Japan, it has steadly grown overseas since the 1990s as people from all over the glove fall in love with her. And as they fall in love with her, they feel compelled to decorate their cell phones with the likeness of this adorable kitty!

A stuffed Mashimaro keychain/cell phone charm from South Korea. This one dates from sometime in the early 2000s .

A stuffed Mashimaro keychain/cell phone charm from South Korea. This one dates from sometime in the early 2000s .

Korean Phone Charms

Apart from Japan, one other country in Asia that can be considered another "cell phone charm capital" is South Korea. In Korea, a "cell phone charm mania" almost equal to the one in Japan has been taking place for well over a decade. This mania has gone hand-in-hand with the "K-wave" of Korean pop culture across the globe.

Charms depicting many of the national anime and Manhwa (Korean manga) characters can be found in shops all over South Korea, as well as through online retailers. These charms range from the teddy bears and hearts with unique "Konglish" (Korean Engish) sayings on them to the obnoxious but ever-adorable rabbit Mashimaro (right).

One of Korea's most popular characters worldwide is the little animated girl known as Pucca. Pucca cell phone charms have stayed consistently popular in Korea and beyond since the animated shorts and Pucca merchandise line took off in 2004.

After the release of the famous 2002 KBS drama Winter Sonata, a star-shaped cell phone charm version of the Polaris necklace worn by the female protagonist Yoon-jin became enormously popular across Korea and remained one of the country's top-selling charms throughout the 2000s.

In addition to "Winter Sonata", many of the other top Korean dramas of the past decade have spawned their own lines of phone charms from dolls or jewelry featured in the drama. These charms, such as the "pig rabbit" from the 2009 SBS series You're Beautiful, usually go on to be hot items among series fans both at home and abroad!

Another type of cell phone charm unique to Korea are the sets of matching (or slightly different) cell phone charms for couples! These are often a pair of anime figures or cute animals that kiss when together and say words like "Love" or "Together" on the back. These charms are all part of Korea's "couple culture" and are the Korean counterpart of the couple necklaces of the West, which can also be found in Korea.

And of course, many of the famous Japanese characters such as Hello Kitty are also popular in Korea as well!

Chinese Phone Charms

In mainland China, virtually all of the Japanese and Korean charms mentioned above - and more - are popular in the mainland. However, there are a few home-grown characters who have also grown in popularity:

  • Pobaby. One of the most successful Chinese animated series of all time is the Pobaby series of Flash animations featuring the hijinks of a young boy and girl. Cell phone charms for couples featuring the two are popular charms.
  • The QQ Penguins. The male and female penguin mascots of the most widely-used instant messenger in the world, Tencent's QQ instant messaging service, also have their own line of merchandise that's become a big seller in the mainland. There are single charms of both penguins or a pair of charms for couples.
  • Ali Fox. Ali Fox, the star of "Ali's Dream Castle" and "Ali's Dream Island", has become both one of China's most popular animated characters (along with his friends from the series) and a popular cell phone charm!

In addition to the pop culture charms above, traditional Chinese protective charms, amulets and pendants are often found on cell phones. One type of charm that falls into this category are cicada charms. In Chinese culture, cicadas are a symbol of immortality and rebirth (much like its ancient Egyptian cousin, the scarab), and are regarded as a protector from malevolent people according to Feng Shui beliefs. Jade cicadas were placed on the tongues of the deceased before burial in ancient China, and cicadas were even given with birthday gifts as a symbol of longevity. Many people in ancient China wore cicada charms from their belts. It's no wonder then that many Chinese today choose to hang a faux jade or wooden carved cicada from their cell phone!

Sets of couple cell phone charms, including the ones found in Korea, and the Maneki Neko are also frequent finds in Chinese stores and on shopping sites such as Taobao.

Traditional Knot Phone Charms

One type of traditional handicraft found in both China and Korea is knot-tying. In Korea, this is known as maedup (매듭) and Zhongguo jie (中國結) in Mandarin Chinese. Knotting is a centuries-old handicraft in which elaborate knots can be tied into different shapes or sometimes figures and used for various decorative purposes. Furthermore, these knots can be decorated with ornaments such as Chinese faux jade decorations, pendants,

One of the many modern-day uses these knots have is for decorating cell phones! These traditional knot decorations are very popular as cell phone charms in both China and Korea. They bring good luck and fortune to the wearer, and act as a cell phone strap in case of an emergency.

Cell Phone Charms in the West

During the mid-2000s, a cell phone charm fad swept Western nations such as the US and UK. Charms of characters such as stars, butterflies, crowns, Winnie the Pooh, and Tweety Bird started appearing on cell phones in these countries. Also, some of the Japanese and Korean charms such as Hello Kitty started appearing on the shelves of fashion accessory stores.

In the West, this fad seems to have faded over the past few years, but many young people can still be seen with these charms hanging from their cell phones. Or in this age of smartphones, from their cell phone cases. The same characters that were popular a few years ago have remained popular up to the present day.

In Conclusion

While the popularity of cell phone charms hasn't been as big among Westerners, their popularity in Asia has shown no signs of dying out. In countries such as Japan, cell phone charms are not just a mere decoration. They are symbols of personal expression and the times, and some, such as the Omamori and knot charms, are examples of ancient culture being brought into our modern world for the same purposes they've served for many centuries.

Many thanks for your visit to this article! Your patience is very much appreciated and if you have any feedback, feel free to drop a line or two below.


truefaith7 (author) from USA on January 14, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed the hub oldiesmusic! It is a shame that most of the smartphones and other phones out nowadays can't be as easily decorated as phones from a decade or so ago. Maybe over time some new kind of decorating trend will come out that will pick up where charms left off. Or maybe decoden will keep growing in popularity??? Who knows!

oldiesmusic from United States on December 18, 2013:

At least I could decorate my casing with lots of beads... Before smartphones arrived flip phones were very popular. Ideal for charms... I used to have a lot of cellphone accessories then... My smartphone doesn't have a place for charms. I miss decorating my phone. Thanks for the wonderful hub :)

truefaith7 (author) from USA on June 29, 2013:

Yep, there are definitely some cutes on there! And the culture surrounding those charms is fascinating. Thanks for your visit idig and glad you enjoyed the hub!

idigwebsites from United States on June 26, 2013:

I want a Doraemon and Domo-kun too! They're really really cute. Thanks for posting! :)