5 Reasons Why the iPhone Sucks in Japan

What's New — By Alex Resnik on April 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm

The Japanese people are absolutely in love with their cell phones (“keitai,” in Japanese). On the train, waiting in line, or just walking around Tokyo, the main pastime, diversion, and time-killer for your average Tokyoite will somehow involve pounding digits into their cell phone. They do everything with these devices, from checking email and playing games to paying for groceries.

So you’d think that the iPhone, with all its functionality, would catch on like crazy in Tokyo. Not true. You might only see a few people using Apple’s fancy phone on the street. Early adopters? Maybe more like only adopters. It turns out that the iPhone is seriously lacking in some functionality compared to the keitai that are already on the market in Japan. Here are five reasons why the iPhone may never catch on in Japan. iPad: consider yourself warned.

No strap

Does your cell phone have a big fuzzy thing hanging off it? How about some plastic edamame you can pop out of the pod to pleasing effect? The iPhone’s lack of a strap attachment comes at the top of the list for good reason.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, old or young, you simply cannot leave the house without a strap (or, “sutorappu,” in katakana English) attached to your otherwise naked phone. The strap speaks to one’s individual taste and social position, separating the Shibuya “gyaru” (who may go for the Hello Kitty plush) from the Akasaka “salaryman” (possibly opting for the executive reading glasses case). But, I do have to admit that this is a pretty cool solution.

No QR code reader

A QR code is a two-dimensional bar code that is widely used in Japan, but seldom seen in other countries. It can be used on products and pretty much anything else you want to be able to scan quickly. As virtually all cell phones in Japan are equipped with a QR code reader, companies and individuals often use these codes to link to their websites from print media like magazines, billboards, and business cards.

Imagine you’re at a coffee shop, perusing some local periodical, and you stumble upon a QR-coded coupon for a free cup of joe at that very same shop. Just point your trusty keitai at the code, scan it, and go to the website. Then, flash the site to the shop-keep, and you’ve got your free coffee. Oh, iPhone, are you taking away our free coffee now?

No TV tuner

Just pull out the antenna on your Japanese handset, choose a channel, and you’ll soon be watching a sumo match, a soba-eating competition, or some crazy game show. A ghetto approach compared to the iPhone’s ability to stream videos online? Maybe, but nothing beats the look of bunny ears.

No awesome camera

The iPhone’s camera weighs in at a puny three megapixels. Japanese phones often have cameras with up to ten. ‘Nuff said.

No infrared

Forget about the elaborate Japanese etiquette for exchanging business cards. By far the easiest way to get a new acquaintance’s digits is via infrared receivers and transmitters built in to all keitai in Japan. Just hold your phone real close to your new friend’s, beam your info, and you’re done. First, though, comes the awkward decision: who gives and who receives?

Tags: camera, cell phone, infrared, ipad, iphone, Japan, keitai, qr code, strap, Tokyo


  • Elea Chang says:

    I wish I could “like” this post, because I don’t really have anything to add other than: thanks for a hilariously entertaining read. Although, I think most phones in the US lack these features, so it’s not just the iPhone…guess we have some catching up to do in the States!

    (And for the record, no, I don’t have an iPhone. Yay Android.)

  • AK says:

    Thanks for the entertaining post, Alex.

    Having traveled extensively in Japan over the last 2 years, I can certainly attest to many of the quirks you describe. The Japanese consumers seem to love attaching cutesy toys to their mobile devices (and just about anything else), and they have come to expect features like TV tuners and high-MP cameras – none of which the iPhone supports.

    However, despite all of this the iPhone is indeed hugely popular in Japan.

    In any given day on my travels, I see the iPhone in use on the subway and in crowds. I estimate between 3 and 5 out of 100 phones I see in use in the big cities of Japan are iPhones. This is huge.

    It is important to note that the iPhone caused every bit as much excitement among the young, fashionable, tech-savvy in Japan as it did everywhere else. I suspect most people who can afford an iPhone already own one. Certainly, the locals I talk to either already own one, or are wishing they had one.

  • Alex Resnik says:

    Thanks, I’m glad you liked it AK!

    Regarding your point, I agree that the iPhone is widely used in Japan and one would see many young tech-savvy people using iPhones on a walk through, say, Shibuya. But even there, in the youthful hub of Tokyo, three to five out of 100 people is not much compared to the number of iPhone users one would find in any American city.

    If I were to take a stab at the market share of the iPhone in San Francisco, for example, I’d put it at above 15%, maybe closer to 20%. So there’s a big discrepancy there. But, you’re right that the Japanese are very excited about this phone.

    Another reason many Japanese cell phone users are hesitant to switch to the iPhone is how well Japanese service providers retain their customers. There are big discounts for those who are loyal to their cell phone service provider in Japan. Since Softbank is the only service provider that has the iPhone, and it doesn’t offer a whole lot else to distinguish it from the pack (except maybe the occasional Otoosan swag), I suspect many cell phone users are hesitant to switch.

    You thoughts? Does anybody else have anecdotal evidence of iPhone use in Japan?

  • Anthony says:

    Since Softbank began aggressively pushing the iPhone (zero yen up front campaign) at the back end of last year, I’ve seen a massive adoption amongst my Japanese acquaintances. It’s been the foreigner’s phone of choice for a couple of years because it’s so easy to use in yr own language, although I only gave in and got one in january. Softbank’s coverage sucks a bit, but the competition has problems too. And a lot of those fancy functions (TV etc) only work in ideal conditions anyway.

    If you mainly need a phone it isn’t the optimal thing, but I know quite a few people happy to have a dedicated cell phone for that and also carry an iphone for all the other stuff it does.
    Anecdotally, people who have invested the time mastering the (unique) japanese cell phone universe are probably going to stay in it. A lot of the youth starting out are getting iphones, as are the smartphone maniacs (although android has finally started having an impact). And a lot of us old fogies are sighing a huge sigh of relief that we can finally do all this useful stuff without plowing through a 300 page manual (not a joke).

    five out of a 100 seems very low to me – my feeling recently looking around in companies and bars is maybe as much as 1 in 5. But I guess it depends where you are. Sales of 2.3 million might work out to be only 2% of total cellphones (it’s 72% of smartphones here I see).

    By the way, I have a couple of apps that read Q-codes fairly competently, and the case I bought has a ring in case I wish to dangle cute objects from it….

  • James Borden says:

    Lately, I’ve seen the iPhone absolutely soar in popularity. Being American, I bought mine as soon as I could get my hands on it (Sept 2009, after I got my alien registration card). At the time, I didn’t see many iPhones around, but I would occasionally run into someone who also had it. Now I see someone with it almost every day (and I don’t even live in a particularly young or trendy area). Oh, I didn’t mention that I’ve been living in Japan for over a year, but I think you must have gathered that by now. I will have to politely argue with you on most of the points here. I am not sure of the timeline of this stuff but:

    1) There are strap areas on most iPhone cases, if not on the iphone itself (mine has one).

    2) QR reader apps are pretty much flawless now (I’m not joking, I was shocked to see the difference from a few months ago)

    3) There is a one-seg adapter for sale for the iPhone in Japan (but I rarely see people watch one-seg anyway, it has horrible reception underground).

    4) There is no such thing as a “good” phone camera…..3 MP or 10 MP makes no difference when the lens opening is so tiny. It’s just a BIGGER crappy picture.

    5) This is the only point I will agree with you on. No infrared is totally inconvenient. However, there are some apps that will make a QR code and display it on your phone so the other person can scan your info. I’ve done this once successfully.

    Ironically, after all that arguing I just did, I’m not going to be sticking with the iPhone after my contract is up. It’s running pitifully lately……I can count on a crash every day when checking my mail or opening safari. Intolerable.

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