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Why Do People Need to Feel That the Japanese Hate the iPhone?

March 3rd, 2009

Before the iPhone ever came out here, there was prognostication of doom. Japanese will hate the iPhone because it pales in comparison to what is out in Japan. People won’t like it because it doesn’t have emoji or because it doesn’t have a convenient strap hook.

But then, when the iPhone went on sale, huge, unprecedented lines formed to buy it. It didn’t take long for this to be forgotten and we started hearing again how the Japanese detested the iPhone. Meanwhile, I’ve started seeing it everywhere; in restaurants, used by people on train platforms, in the hands of people on the street. It’s one of the more common–and certainly more recognizable–phone models in a country with hundreds of models out there. And people who don’t have it know about it; even people who don’t get it say they think it’s cool and they want one. It might be one of the highest-profile cell phones in Japan, period. Just today I was at immigration to pick up my visa, and I got out my iPhone to while away some time. Immediately, three women to my left started having a long discussion about what plans were available for the iPhone.

The whole “Japan hates the iPhone” meme got a weird boost yesterday when Wired magazine published an article titled, “Why the Japanese Hate the iPhone.” What’s weird about it is that it was (and even after edits, still is) filled with inaccuracies. It misquoted Japanese tech reviewers, most notably Nobuyuki Hayashi, completely skewing what they said to change a quite favorable view of the iPhone into a negative, even dismissive view. AppleInsider does a pretty good job of laying out the badly-done piece.

Even after edits, the article reeks of know-nothingness. In the first paragraph, it claims, “the handset is selling so poorly it’s being offered for free.” The iPhone has been selling pretty well, in fact; Hayashi points to the iPhones’ sales figures as fairly strong considering that mobile sales dropped sharply in 2008. The “free” 8GB iPhone (the 16GB is half price) is a promotion, the kind SoftBank is famous for, and is seen as a way to both steal market share from competitors and to clear out inventories for an expected June launch of the next iPhone model (the promotion ends in May).

I could go through the whole article, but let me just focus on a few paragraphs:

Besides cultural opposition, Japanese citizens possess high, complex standards when it comes to cellphones. The country is famous for being ahead of its time when it comes to technology, and the iPhone just doesn’t cut it.

Actually, the iPhone floors most Japanese who see it; Japanese phones are packed with features, but those features are complex and hard to access; the iPhone’s easy-to-use interface and multi-touch screen are big attention-grabbers with Japanese keitai users. Maybe the hardcore uber-nerd crowd reacts the way the Wired article says, but not most Japanese.

As for “cultural opposition,” they’re full of it–Japan was “culturally opposed” to non-Japanese music players–and yet the iPod now dominates the market.

For example, Japanese handset users are extremely into video and photos — and the iPhone has neither a video camera nor multimedia text messaging. And a highlight feature many in Japan enjoy on their handset is a TV tuner, according to Kuittinen.

Actually, no. You don’t see too many people actually using these features, mostly because they are too hard to use. As a previous Wired piece correctly quoted the Japanese tech guru, “while being able to watch TV anywhere is a spectacular idea, there’s no signal in the subways, and even above ground, the sound cuts out every few seconds.” Fact is, I don’t often see people using those features on their keitai. They are widely considered as cool bells and whistles, but ultimately not used very much.

What else bugs the Japanese about the iPhone? The pricing plans, Kuittinen said. Japan’s carrier environment is very competitive, which equates to relatively low monthly rates for handsets. The iPhone’s monthly plan starts at about $60, which is too high compared to competitors, Kuittinen added.

Again, not so much. Most plans in Japan cost at least that much, and most cost more, especially with full Internet connectivity and unlimited data plans. What hurts SoftBank is not the overall price of the plan, but rather SoftBank’s high per-minute charges. Most of my students express deep envy over the iPhone, but say they can’t afford it because it costs 42 yen per minute, and SoftBank’s cheap White Plan only allows free calls among fellow SoftBank users. Were most students already SoftBank users, the iPhone would take off; since most are not, calling their friends would be way too expensive. SoftBank must somehow reach a critical mass before the free-calls deal means much to most people.

Gizmodo followed up on Wired’s story, but got even more wrong. They also misquoted Hayashi, claiming that he fault’s the iPhone’s lack of emoji as a reason it’s failing. Except Hayashi didn’t say that, he said it used to lack emoji, but SoftBank “did a good follow up job” by getting Apple to add that.

Gizmodo shows up a key element in the “iPhone is doomed in Japan” scenario painters: using whatever excuses are handy, not rational, in predicting or proclaiming doom. When the iPhone came out, it was the lack of emoji, a wrist strap, 1-seg TV tuner, electronic wallet feature, and QR Code reader. While the iPhone still lacks the e-wallet feature, it now has emoji & QR Code readers, you can get a 1-seg add-on, and straps are easily added using neoprene covers with strap hooks. So is it mostly cool now?

Of course not. Why? Because of the phone’s “high monthly plan, lack of multimedia messaging support, and dependence on a computer for syncing.” The iPhone is already seeing a big cut in the pricing plan, and frankly, the computer syncing issue is bogus–most Japanese people have computers today. But when these issues dissipate like the old ones did, how much you want to bet that they’ll find a list of new reasons? It’s a sucker bet: some people are just latched onto the idea that the iPhone will never succeed in Japan, and until its sales become undeniably massive, they’ll just keep on finding excuses, most likely based upon why the iPhone doesn’t include every single feature in every other cell phone in Japan.

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  1. Tim Kane
    March 3rd, 2009 at 10:56 | #1

    “it’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

    Doesn’t this all sound familiar?

    When Obama became President, all the media outlets and all the pundits were all saying that he would have to implement or continue Republican policies and what not.

    When the debate for the stimulus was going on, the media had far more Republicans on than not. Even now, the right wing media machine is pushing the push back against the incoming liberal tide. Through all of this, Obama has polled in the high 60s percentage wise and the Republicans in the abysmal low 30s and below.

    Josh Marshall refered to this as reflecting what he called the Washington Para-government: the media elite, the punditry, the policy elites at the think tanks, the K-street crowd and many of the high ranking governmental appointees that dominate inside the beltway, they all reflect the 30 years of conservative government that got them there. And they are all in denial.

    While I think what Josh Marshall says is definitely true, its not the whole story. Not by a long shot. The think tanks, the punditry, and the K-street crowd etc.. many of these people reflect their pay masters, the public’s sentiments be damned. This also reflects a huge denial on this crowd’s part, including their paymasters. And guys like Rush Limbaugh are leading the charge.

    All of this reflects a larger issue.

    Nothing happens in American life unless big money is behind it.

    I think that’s what you are seeing in Japan. Some powerful interests want to deny the hole Ipod/Iphone phenomena. It’s true here in Korea as well. An article in the English newspaper I read quoted a Korean telecom analyst as saying “Korea isn’t ready for the Iphone yet.”

    The reason has more to do with Korean government’s strategic interest and investment in the cell phone industry. They use or need domestic demand to provide the level of demand necessary to achieve economies of scale in the cell phone industry necessary to compete globally. The I-phone is a dagger aimed at the heart of that government/industrial complex. It is their worst nightmare. So what do they do? They just ban it outright (I’m not sure the means of how they do it, but it’s not offered through any channels).

    At the very least, big government and big industry, both having deep pockets, is behind this media wall of negative commentary. That’s seems obvious. The problem with Japan is that they are a developed country, with a huge market. They can’t ban something like this outright without facing a back lash. Korea on the other hand is significantly smaller. Apple products, because they are proprietary from hardware to software, are relatively rare here, but are quietly growing. Samsung and LG can only manufacture and sell the win-tel architecture. Recently that received a deep blow with the development of the net computers, which came from Taiwan, and instantaneously became very popular here, because people spend a lot of time in coffee houses in Korea.

    All of this reflects what some call the “neo-mercantilist” economic policies of the two country (and essentially, Korea has stolen this from Japan, although no one would ever admit that). A friend of mine had a better name for this: he called it Fascist Economics. The government tells companies what they can and cannot do. Economically, it is really hard to do something that the government doesn’t want. Everyone here respects that very much, because the goverment has orchestrated Korea’s ascent from 3rd world poverty to 1st world powerhouse. Thus Apple products are hard to get here.

    I was thinking about this yesterday as I rode into Seoul from the airport. In New York residence can join an automobile club that allows people to, like a library, check out an automobile from the club and rent it for $5 an hour. In a city of like Seoul with it’s high density, that would be a great idea that I wished they had. I rarely need a car, but it would be great if I could rent one like that when I needed it. If some enterprising person were to develop this I’m sure the Government would cut them off at the knees. Why? Because it could have a significant impact on aggregate demand for automobiles. That would hurt Hyundai who needs the strong steady local demand to give them economies of scale to give them the size and strength for exporting. For good or for ill, that’s economic fascism.

    I don’t denounce the policy outright, because no one can deny the affect it’s had on both Japan, Korea and possibly Taiwan in developing those countries. In fact I wish it were acknowledged universally – and slowly its beginning to – as a means for developing and pulling the third world out of poverty. But as a nation matures, just as Korea went from dictatorship to democracy, so ought its economic policy, or so it seems. There’s no mistaking Korea’s economic brittleness. Despite the fact that Korea produces more cars, ships, steel, semiconductors, and cellphones than any country in western Europe, save Germany (on the steel and cars) Korea’s GNP per capita is much smaller and its economy much more fragile than anything in Western Europe. Mostly because the only sectors of the economy that are truly modern are those that have been churned through government industrial policy. A vast stretch of the economy, especially agriculture, are very inefficient.

    The thing I look for these days, whether politics or otherwise, is ‘who creates the talking points?’ I want to know who the men are behind the curtain. I want the whole confab of manipulation thoroughly exposed. In American politics, it’s not Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. They are (at least) one step removed from the central source. My guess is it’s somewhere inside a think tank that’s funded by a few core people like Pete Coors and the Koch family. These are the kind of people with money and vast agenda of how they want government to be.

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