Japan's once-leading mobile market under siege

Guillermo Escofet/Informa Telecoms and Media
20 Jan 2014
00:00

I was in Japan recently on vacation, five years after my last trip there. It is evident from looking around at the phones that people are carrying and those being peddled in mobile shops that there has been a big shift in the Japanese mobile market over the past five years.

Five years ago, virtually every mobile user in Japan was walking around with the big pastel-colored rectangular clam-shell phones that had come to epitomize Japan’s indigenous keitai (mobile) culture. That form-factor was repeated with monotonous predictability among the phones displayed by mobile operators in their stores.

Such uniformity was a reflection of a highly insular, vertically integrated market in which local handset makers such as NEC and Sharp churned out one phone model after another, following the strict dictates of local operators. It was also a reflection of a highly confident, self-sufficient mobile market that until relatively recently was the most advanced and admired in the world.

Endangered species
Now, Japan’s indigenous mobile phones – inadequately labeled by analysts as “feature phones,” even though 10 years ago they were already smarter than any smartphone produced in the West – are a rapidly disappearing species. Every other person around me seemed to be holding an iPhone.

The Apple device has become the most aspirational in Japan, attracting the young, the trendy and well-to-do professionals. It is also the most prominently displayed device, alongside the iPad, in operator stores and catalogs. Android phones are prominent too, from both foreign manufacturers, such as HTC, LG, Pantech, Samsung and ZTE, and local ones, such as Fujitsu, NEC, Panasonic, Sharp and Sony. It’s now mostly only the not-so-young and untrendy who carry the old clam-shell keitais.

By late November, various iPhone 5S and 5C models were hogging nine of the spots in the top-10-handset-sales rankings published by market-research firm BCN, which collects sales figures from Japan’s carriers. The 10th spot was taken by another import, a low-end phone from ZTE designed for children.

Essentially, Japan’s indigenous mobile ecosystem is being swept away by the smartphone ecosystems of the West Coast of the US. And a lot of the homegrown, pioneering mobile services for which Japan has won much acclaim are under threat, since they are not compatible with the smartphones pouring in from abroad. Their only lifeline is coming from Japanese handset makers, which are providing a bridge between both worlds by building Android smartphones incorporating some of Japan’s homegrown mobile technologies, such as contactless service FeliCa and broadcast-mobile-TV service One-Seg.

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