Getting a Cellphone in Japan

After the Mos Burger Excursion, it was time to attempt to pick up an Iphone 4. We went to the nearest Softbank, which is the only carrier in Japan that offers the Iphone. It’s kind of a shame because Softbank supposedly has the worst reception but the best phones. While Ken did all of the talking , I wandered around and looked at the other phones on offer. In terms of technology, Japan is probably 2-3 years ahead of what Canada will offer in terms of camera capabalities. As of my writing this in August 2010, 12 megapixel cameras on the phones are the norm, but 13.2 mp is quickly becoming ubiquitous.

There are still 5 and 8 megapixel camera phones available if you’re cheap, and I did manage to find one or two 2mp phones. However carrying one of those around is probably a bigger social faux-pas than farting (with regards to flatulence, you just have to look behind you to make sure the coast is clear and it’s okay. Yes, seriously.).

This all sounds amazingly high tech, but in actuality, any person who has a reasonable understanding of modern consumer technology knows how outdated of a metric of performance megapixel count is. For those who don’t know, megapixel count just makes the size of your pictures bigger, it does little to actually improve image quality. The Iphone 4’s camera is only 5 megapixels, but its image quality is among the best in the market. However, because objective comparison and actual honest reviews of products are rare in Japan, everyone still buys into the whole megapixel nonsense  (All the big megaconglomerate Japanese companies; Zaibatsu, have their hand in every industry, so the newspapers and magazines never write anything bad about the products they talk about).

Thus in reality, Japanese phones aren’t really all that much more high tech than their counterparts back home, especially compared to the Iphone 4 and myriad of smartphones out on the market today. Japanese cellular technology supremacy is actually still a pretty pervasive myth, at least according to my experience so far, where everyone keeps asking me why I didn’t get a ‘sweet high-tech Japanese phone’. A few years ago before the rise of smartphones, Japanese keitai might have been the best in the world, but nowadays the gap is quickly closing. In fact, I think that the Iphone4 is actually the best phone out in Japan right now, at least for foreigners.

You would think this would make the Iphone a very popular phone since Japan loves its Keitais. However, there is a very curious and surprising reason why it’s not that popular in here. Granted, a lot of what I’m about to write is a mix of my own speculation, observations, and from what I’ve read and heard, so take it with a grain of salt and Google away if you’re interested in learning more.

This may come as a huge shock (it definitely did to me), but most people in Japan don’t own personal computers. You need a computer to use an Iphone.  Unlike the trend in Canada and the US towards every person in the family having their own laptop or notebook computer, most Japanese families will often have at most, only one, older desktop computer. In fact, a poll conducted in 2007, compared to earlier in 2000, found that the proportion of Japanese 20-year-olds using home PCs to access the internet plummeted from 23.6 per cent to just 11.9 per cent*. That’s almost as low as 1 in 10 20-year olds using a computer! Contrast that with life back in Canada where everyone I know owns a laptop. Could you imagine not having a laptop? I sure can’t, but in Japan, it’s actually the norm. Nowadays, laptops and all-in-one desktop computers are starting to become more popular, but they are nowhere near as widely used as in the US or Canada.

Expanding on this phenomenon for a moment (bear with me, I like my tangents), this has really interesting repercussions throughout modern Japanese society that you wouldn’t expect

  • DVDs and CDs still sell extremely well compared to the rest of the world because you can’t really burn or rip movies and music without a computer
  • Piracy and file sharing doesn’t really happen in Japan. If nobody owns a computer, how will anybody make copies of games or download music?
  • The PC gaming industry is comparatively underdeveloped in terms of cutting edge 3D gaming. All the major Japanese videogame developers are console based.
  • Come to think of it, that explains why text-based games like dating sims are so common in Japan. That’s all that gets made for the PC because they are so low tech.
  • And speaking of PC gaming, people dont really game on their computers here..I’ve yet to find a place that sells a copy of starcraft II and it’s driving me crazy
  • computers in most offices and schools are embarassingly outdated.
  • A lot of young people aren’t very familiar with how to USE a PC. However, they can and will type out entire essays and stories on their keitais.

So why aren’t computers popular here? Well there are a few reasons why I suspect computers haven’t really caught on:

First, computers are expensive. Japan is still primarily a cash based society, so people tend to spend what they have. Banks have really low interest rates, so people are encouraged to spend instead of save (partly why consumerism is so rampant in Japan).  So as a result of Japan being cash-based, buying things on credit isn’t really very popular. It’s difficult to get a credit card, and most places don’t even take them at all. Thus, if you think about it, a computer is a rather large investment for the average Japanese person.  Keitai’s by comparison, are usually heavily subsidized by the carrier, or have the cost of the phone built into the plan, making even the most advanced phones affordable to the masses.

Second, there isn’t very much time left to spend on a computer at home. Students spend most of their days in school and in mandatory afterschool clubs, and as for older people, most people who travel to the big cities to work have long commutes, and will often stay overtime after work and go drinking together (aka the Enkai). This leaves little time for sitting in front of the computer at home.

Third, and as a result of the first and second reasons, In Japan people use their keitai (cellphone) as their primary means of connection to the internet. They use it to surf the web, write blogs, and stay in contact with each other through email. For many Japanese people, a significant portion of the day is spent in transit on the train As a side note, I also want to point out that rather surprisingly, Japanese people rarely use their phones to actually TALK to each other. I’ve heard that it’s considered rude or at least, immature to impose your conversation upon someone else where they can overhear. This makes for quite an interesting dichotomy when I’m riding the train. EVERYBODY will be on their keitais, but no one will actually be using them to talk. It’s really strange the first time you see it!

So because computers are much less popular here, for a long time, Japanese keitais were far and away the most advanced in terms of accessing the internet, and as a result, the mobile internet infrastructure is much more developed. This also led to the development of interesting capabilities such as real time TV,  super high resolution screens, one touch infrared contact exchange, and wireless payment (in the big cities, you can actually PAY for things with your keitai). However there was a lack of innovation in such areas as storage, GPS, music management software, and any sort of cottage industry for third party apps.

Which brings me back to (what I think is) the original thing I was trying to explain – the Iphone 4 is the best phone in Japan available right now. It has the features a foreigner like me would actually need and use. It will also be useable back home, unlike a Japanese phone which will be crippled and relegated to a fancy paperweight since none of its more exotic features could be used.

This whole post would have been for naught if I didn’t actually get the Iphone 4, and in fact I haven’t yet. I managed to place an order for one, but it still hasn’t come in yet since they are apparently sold out all over Japan.

Hmm, that actually kind of sounds like it invalidates my entire post, but I suspect that Apple has anticipated the expected demand and adjusted accordingly. I’ve seen very few Japanese people with Iphones so I’m pretty sure what I wrote is still valid.

In any case, aside from that, the process of ordering the Iphone 4 was a relatively uninteresting affair. However what is cool is the awesome deal that we get in Japan for the Iphone 4. I’m getting the 32gb model on a 2 year contract and it’s costing me 0 dollars with no activation fee.  It’s heavily subsidized by Apple, and the remaining balance is broken down over 24 months and built into the cost of the plan. Despite that, I’m still paying roughly what I would pay in Canada for a plan, so it’s like the phone was free. Which makes me happy. Now if only the darn thing would get here already.

* source

Here’s a link showing the kind of phones that are available right now at the time of this post:

summer 2010 cellphones

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One thought on “Getting a Cellphone in Japan

  1. So in canada we would have to pay about 15$ CDN more than what we pay with softbank.

    Double check about set up cost. There is one with softbank for the iphone at 2800 YEN. Still a joke.

    As to the iPhone – many people in Japan hesitate to buy anything MAC because they worry about the incompatibility with their work (PC environment). Also, computers are taught in high school pretty strong actually and again its all PC, PC, PC.

    That said, the iPad seems to be a hit here for its size, usage and price. I posted some pics of Apple in Ginza – it was awesome. In Shiz, I haven’t seen anyone WITH it but I have caught many ppl browsing it at work and on their keitais not to mention in Tokyo.

    Many people won’t take the iphone because it is with softbank and it doesn’t have good reception in inaka. Many people discouraged me from getting for that reason even though I live and work in the city.

    Others still hate the fact that you can’t pay the metro with it. The idea seems to frustrate a lot of people! I dont care because i never used it in the first place and I have Glinda to take me places.

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