Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2008’ Category

Where’s the SoftBank?

July 15th, 2008 1 comment

Today, I demo’ed the iPhone for my two sections of Introduction to Computers (the iPhone is, after all, a computer–that’s my excuse for showing off), and the students were appropriately wowed. I set up a routine to go over the major features one by one in about 20 minutes. There were a variety of gasps and ‘wow’s at various times, and for the most part, the reaction was very positive. They loved the map feature (it usually is the star attraction), and were appropriately impressed by the iPod music and video features, as well as the browsing and App Store features.Ipint Img

To wind up the presentation, I showed them a game which is mildly interesting to play, but great for showing off: iPint (iTunes link), a game where you use the iPhone’s accelerometer to guide a beer down a bar to the waiting hands of a drinker. When you get to the end, the iPhone simulates a mug of beer filling up, and the liquid sloshes when you turn the phone. Then you put the iPhone’s top edge to your lips and tilt it like you would a glass you are drinking from, and it gives the illusion of drinking beer out of the phone. A good finish, and the classes applauded enthusiastically.

Before each presentation, I wanted to find two SoftBank users in the class; I thought we’d try a three-way call and see the image-and-ringtone presentation when calling, and SoftBank users can call each other for free. SoftBank has some 20% of the Japanese market, so out of 30 students I expected five or six to have SoftBank–more, I thought, as many parents pay for the cell phones and they might want that family free-dialing plan SoftBank offers. So I asked… and got nothing. Most were DoCoMo users, most of the rest Au, and a few were Willcom. Not a single SoftBank user among the lot.

When I asked why, the response was pretty clear: for these students, SoftBank was too expensive. Not the monthly plan–SoftBank’s 980 yen White Plan is about as cheap as plans get–but the per call cost. If you go over your limits, the students told me, it costs 42 yen per minute to call using a SoftBank phone, but other providers have lower rates, such as 28 yen per minute. Or so I was told by these students. The White Plan also has no free minutes.

That works out fine for me, as I don’t do an incredible amount of calling, but it doesn’t work as well for these young kids, who make lots of calls. Still, the lack of a single SoftBank customer among the crowd very much surprised me. An overlooked market for SoftBank?

Addendum: I noticed that the Japanese iPhone commercials–by Apple, not SoftBank–have started showing. SoftBank still peppers the airwaves with their ads, but none for the iPhone.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, iPhone Tags:

iPhone Hype in Japan

July 10th, 2008 Comments off

It’s a pretty interesting phenomenon here. The line at the Omote-Sando store is now huge, with more than a thousand people in line by now–some reports say 1500, and thousands more expected by tomorrow. Seriously, it’s a Festival environment there, looks just like cherry-blossom viewing or something. Tarps laid out, people drinking beer, the whole nine yards. Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank and a bit of a celebrity, is on the line shaking hands and stuff. Here’s the Twitter blog of a guy who got in line a few hours ago, and he’s about 850th in line.

TV and press reporters are all over the place there, and it’s becoming a pretty big media event. Sachi has a news show called ‘Zero“ on, and they had a pretty long segment on it, which included a live report from the flagship line, some demoes of an iPhone they got their hands on, and reports on stuff like the relationship between carriers and cell phone makers–how the makers are usually at the mercy of the carriers, but the iPhone is leading the carriers around by the nose.

Frankly, their handling of the phone was surprisingly clumsy, as if they had just been handed the thing for the first time (which it probably was). For example, they showed the Calculator app, but didn’t turn it on its side; they showed photos, but did not pinch to show zooming. They didn’t even try out maps, one of the most impressive features. They just turned stuff on and looked at it without actually doing anything; for example, they turned on the calendar and just sat there looking at a completely blank list, no appointments. Pretty lame.

But they are playing up the phone itself; this one show had a ticking clock showing how much time remains until the first one is sold. Pretty funny.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, iPhone Tags:

If You Don’t Need It…

July 10th, 2008 Comments off

As a SoftBank commercial came on just a moment ago, I just realized that while they’ve been running their usual barrage of White-Plan and Cameron Diaz spots, they have not run one ad for the new iPhone.

But then again, the don’t really need to, do they? Not yet, at least; the iPhone is almost certainly going to sell out for a while, even without a single ad anywhere. Maybe when they start registering unsold stock, they’ll start running some ads.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

All Set for ID

July 4th, 2008 4 comments

Went down to Samezu today, which for Tokyo is the Mecca of driving: that’s where most people in central Tokyo go to get their driver’s license. Mine was just a few days away from expiring (you get one month after your birthday). As it turns out, this has been my year for renewals–American and Japanese driver’s licenses, and my “gaijin card.”

I really expected a longer ordeal at Samezu. I used to go to Fuchu, out in the less-crowded western Tokyo area, and that would take quite a bit of time, mostly waiting for this and waiting for that. You always have to take a 2-hour lecture if you get a ticket for anything. I’ve been 20 months without a ticket, but it has to be for the whole three years. I remember having to wait a while for that lecture in Fuchu–a long time, in fact, if you came too close to the lunch break–but even if you came early, you had to wait for a while before your session started. It could easily take more than half the day.

At Samezu, though, at least for today, it went quick & slick. Walked in the door at 8:50 am, swept through the lines for vision test, photograph (a much better one this time), payment, and a few other formalities, and was waved into the 9:00 lecture. After the lecture, go up to the 3rd floor and pick up your license. In Fuchu, just that would take up to a hour; here, they fed us through the room in about 5 minutes.

The lecture itself wasn’t too bad–usually these things are practices in boredom and futility, teaching us virtually nothing of importance. Today’s maintained the “useless” tradition, but in a slightly more interesting way. Much of the subject matter was more than just useless, it was so useless it was almost weird. These were all drivers who were forced to attend this lecture because they received citations (even parking tickets). But they spent a full twenty minutes on bicycle safety. I don’t mean tips on how drivers can avoid hitting bicycles–I mean twenty minutes on how to responsibly ride your bicycle. You know, don’t go too fast, stop at stop signs, walk your bike across crosswalks. I started wondering if I was in the right room.

They spent a good ten minutes or so on fatality numbers, and the more usual patter about traffic stuff wholly unrelated to traffic violations, a lot of which I just can’t figure out. But in a surprise move, they spent the last 40 minutes or so showing us a TV drama. Not made for the department, but an actual drama. And strangely, it was probably the most effective part of the lecture. It was about a normal, nice guy who felt he had to drive for some reason even though he was drunk, and he runs over two little kids and flees the scene. He gives himself up out of guilt, goes to prison, and his family falls apart. His daughter becomes so depressed that she won’t go to school; the son gets colored hair and rebels, cutting his father out of all the family photos. His wife has to go scrape and bow and receive endless abuse from the victim’s family; after paying damages, she has to work days as a cook and nights as a construction-site wand-waver. But the shame, the stress, the hard work, and the kids going nuts drives her to throw herself in front of a train. Cut to the guy getting the news in prison.

Most of the film, obviously a tragedy, was spent watching various people writhe in agonizing emotional torment. So, in short, loads of fun, the feel-good movie of the summer and all that. Or, more to the point, the kind of morbid melodrama so deeply loved here in Japan (right after the yo-yo-wielding high school girl-police detective cliche). But you did come out of it feeling like, “well I don’t want to go through that!” And as such, probably did loads more to address the supposed theme of the lecture than anything else, especially the part about not riding your bicycle on crowded sidewalks.

One other note: the guy giving the lecture (probably a retired cop) strangely resembled Takakura Ken, and wasn’t a complete bore. He probably would have served as a better actor than many of those in the TV drama.

One interesting change: licenses in Japan are now equipped with IC chips, complete with a PIN number. They sold it as a way to more effectively renew your card next time, protecting against identity theft or something, but you know the real reason: they want to make it easier to give you traffic citations. Instead of the cop having to laboriously write out the ticket, he can just swipe your card, and presto! He’s off to ticket three times as many people as before. It might even mean that motorcycle cops can ticket people on rainy days, as there wouldn’t be much paper to get wet. But I have the feeling that the cops stay indoors during the rain for other reasons.

Which, of course, leads me to my usual gripe: that most tickets handed out in Tokyo have one purpose only–to generate income. Japanese cops leave the most dangerous places unmonitored, instead setting up ticket traps in places where people break traffic laws which are wholly unreasonable, in completely safe and innocuous ways–but where it’s dead easy to catch them in numbers. I have zero respect for these guys; they obviously don’t give a rat’s ass about safety. If they did, they would be acting in completely different ways. As they are now, they’re just pompous, self-righteous fee collectors.

Case in point: When I lived in Inagi, I went “mentei,” which means you got so many tickets that you went on a kind of probation–I had to stop driving for a month (not so bad, as I was in the U.S.–and driving–for three weeks of that). As of now, as I pointed out, I have not gotten a single traffic ticket in 20 months. Why? Not because of safety–I drive as safely now as I did in Inagi, which is pretty safely–but simply because I now live downtown, where the cops don’t ticket people nearly as much. Most of my tickets before were for “speeding” on long, lonely, deserted, straightaway stretches of country road where the safe speed is at least 50 mph, but the posted speed limit is 25 mph. I usually got caught going a “dangerous” 40, naughty me. Since they stay on your record until you go ticketless for a whole year, they added up over time.

Maybe continued city living (if I can keep on evading the even-more-fee-generating motorbike parking ticket squads) will allow me to go ticketless for the next three years, so for once I can get a renewal without the worthless, time-wasting lecture.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

Grain of Salt, FWIW

June 24th, 2008 Comments off

From All about the iPhone in Japan:

This is just a rumour at this point, but on a keitai mailing list that I subscribe to, another member indicated that a relative working at a DoCoMo shop had heard the following news today:

> She was informed today by management that DoCoMo signed with Apple to
> provide the iPhone. Her initial impression was that it would be
> offered in the fall before the Christmas rush. BUT also felt there
> was too much secrecy and that perhaps DoCoMo is fighting to offer it
> on or near the July release as well.

Hopefully this will be substantiated by an announcement from DoCoMo before July 11.
If Softbank and DoCoMo both offer the iPhone in Japan, the customer is the winner (more competitive pricing).

– End of rumour alert.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

SoftBank Releases Official iPhone Pricing

June 23rd, 2008 5 comments

A few hours ago, SoftBank released their official pricing schedule for the iPhone in Japan. Despite doing two checks on the sites this morning and early afternoon, as well as stopping by both of their east-side Ikebukuro shops while out shopping this afternoon, I just found out about it from Roy leaving a comment. Talk about your watched pot.

Anyway, the news seems to be good. First, the pricing of the phones: ¥69,120 ($640) for the 8GB model, and ¥80,640 ($750) for the 16GB model. Before you gag, those are pre-discounted prices. After discounts (subsidies) applied with a 2-year contract, the costs are ¥23,040 ($215) and ¥34,560 ($320)–which, by the way, are just a few hundred yen off from my blind prediction twelve days ago–not bad! I guessed based on roughly a 10% higher price than in the U.S., which was not too amazing a guess since this is normal for Apple products in Japan.

But the bigger news that was welcomed today concerned the price of the data plan. A “leaked” memo (now apparently shown up as fake) had the data plan being ¥6800 yen plus ¥1800 for email, for a total of ¥8600 for the month, not counting the monthly installment for the phone itself and the ¥980 “White Plan” account. That would have totaled a staggering ¥10,540–nearly $100 a month.

According to the official press release, it’ll be ¥980 for the White Plan, another ¥315 for the S-Basic service (which appears to cover all email, not just SoftBank’s internal email), and ¥5985 ($55) for the unlimited data plan, for a total of ¥7280 ($68), not counting the ¥960 or ¥1440 for the monthly installments for the iPhones themselves.

More/edits after dinner, Sachi just set the table!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

Lakeland Lectures: Tokkou

June 21st, 2008 4 comments

If you live in the Tokyo area or will be around next month–specifically July 23rd–then drop by my school, Lakeland College Japan, for a special event. We’ve started a lecture series at the college, and after two successes, we’re gearing up for a third which should be special. Mr. Tadamasa Iwai, 88, a former Tokkou-tai officer, will be speaking. The Tokkou were Japan’s suicide bombers during World War II.

Most Americans–and Japanese, for that matter–only know about kamikaze pilots, but there were more than just that kind of suicide soldier. The Japanese navy used suicide bombers in various ways. One was to use a mini-submersible, packed with high explosives, with a human being acting like a living guidance system in what was essentially a large, manned torpedo. Another was to outfit a diver with a pack full of explosives, place him underwater for hours on end, and when an enemy ship sailed past, have him explode himself against the ship’s hull. Illustrations of each:



Mr. Iwai and his younger brother were both swept up in the wartime fervor of the time, and in that fervor compromised their personal principles and ideals, and became officers in the Tokkou-tai. There, they help persuade other young men to join, compromising their own principles, and leading many to their deaths. After the war, both came to seriously regret their actions.

But what affected them more than one might have superficially thought was 9/11, watching those planes fly into the Twin Towers. One can only imagine how the Iwai brothers felt to see not only the action taken by those pilots, so dramatically public, so similar to those they themselves advocated more than half a century earlier–but just as destructive, the public reaction after the attacks, leading to a fearful and patriotic fervor so much like the one they were drawn into so many years before.

Additionally, the two were angered by the efforts of many Japanese right-wingers who romanticized the roles of Tokkou soldiers, using them as icons to encourage new generations of young Japanese to surrender their own personal principles and become weapons for the state. One manga artist named Yoshinori Kobayashi, for example, has created comics using images of the kamikaze as a way of today promoting “an altruistic spirit of selflessness” among Japanese youth, the kind that led to so much tragedy in wartime Japan.

In 2002, they published a book called “Tokkou,” subtitled (my rough translation) “The Story of Brothers Who Went from Students to Suicide Weapons.” Their primary mission is to speak to as many young people as will listen, and tell them the truth about what things were like, about what was done, and what it meant on a human level. To warn them not to allow themselves to be drawn into the same mistakes.

Frankly, this is a message that all too many Americans should hear. Not that we’re training suicide bombers–but that we are, instead, training our young men to become things just as bad, or worse, for the same reasons. One thought of what has happened at Guantanamo or at Abu Ghraib should be enough to drive that point home. Americans so driven by fear, so intimidated by the national fervor in a time of war, that we believe that almost anything is acceptable–from disassembling our Constitutional rights, to renouncing the Geneva Conventions, repealing Habeas Corpus, starting wars based on thin tissues of lies, and even torturing and killing people under the official banner of national security. Making the same mistakes all over again, allowing our own ideals, principles, and good judgment be compromised in the name of patriotism, security, and war.

So, if you’re in central Tokyo–that’s 7:00 pm, Wednesday, July 23, in the Shinjuku area–mark it down on your calendar. Here’s a link to the PDF file we have for the event, which includes a map to the lecture’s venue. The same information will be available on the lecture series’ web site as well (it hasn’t been updated yet). You should plan on coming 15 to 20 minutes early–I expect it’ll be SRO, so you’ll want to get there in time to grab a seat.

This is an event you won’t want to miss.

Categories: Education, Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

I Didn’t Blog Daily for the First 39 Years of My life

June 19th, 2008 Comments off

The reason for the title of this article is to demonstrate how a rather impressive (or pathetic depending on your point of view) statistic, namely that I’ve blogged every day for almost the past 5 years, can be made to sound negative. I do this to demonstrate how the news article titled “Survey: 91% of Japanese Will Not Buy ‘iPhone’” is similarly misleading. Here’s how they present the data:

According to a survey by iSHARE, 91.0% of Japanese mobile phone users are not planning to purchase Apple Inc’s “iPhone” mobile phone.

This research was conducted in the wake of the announcement by SoftBank Mobile Corp that it will release the iPhone in Japan (See related article). Targeting Internet users aged primarily 20 to 49, iSHARE asked questions about their intention to purchase an iPhone, as well as other questions and received 402 responses over the Internet.

The survey had been conducted from June 5 to 6, 2008, before pricing for an iPhone handset was announced. Of carriers that the respondents were subscribing to, NTT DoCoMo accounted for 39.8%, followed by au at 26.9%, SoftBank Mobile at 22.9% and the other carriers including Emobile and Willcom at 6.5%.

Asked if they have a plan to purchase an iPhone, 36 respondents (8.9%) said “I am planning to purchase one.” Nearly half of these 36 respondents were SoftBank Mobile users, iSHARE said.

They then make a big deal about how most respondents see a non-removable battery as an issue, though they don’t say if that’s a deal-breaker. But the real misdirection is in the distinct impression they give of most Japanese not wanting to get an iPhone.

If the report is true, that means the iPhone is set to capture almost 10% of the Japanese cell phone market right off the bat–in a country where the iPhone is probably still a largely unknown product. Since half the users are already SoftBank clients, that means 4.5% of Japanese cell phone users would jump to SoftBank from other carriers, increasing SoftBank’s market share from 23% to 27 or 28% within a short span of time. Word of mouth and people seeing others using the iPhone would only increase sales.

That’s hardly negative news.

However, I somehow doubt the veracity of the study; I don’t think the iPhone will sell to millions of Japanese cell phone users right away (though that would be cool). The study doesn’t seem very scientific, had a fairly small sample size, was not universal (it ignored teenagers and those 50 and over), and took place only a day after SoftBank announced they would sell the iPhone, at a time when no pricing plans or tech specs–or even official word that such a device even existed–were available.

Update: I should have guessed: most of the media coverage which picked up on the useless iSHARE survey is blindly picking up on the negative headline, running with the “most Japanese couldn’t care less about the iPhone” angle. Ignoring the fact that 1% market penetration would be seen as a success, ignoring the fact that the survey was taken days before the iPhone 3G was even announced, ignoring the fact that the survey itself was unscientific–in short, the survey was useless, but even if you thought it held meaning, then the meaning was in fact great news for Apple.

Morons. But at least one reporter understood what the basic numbers would mean, even if he didn’t understand the concept of “20- to 49-year-olds.”

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

iPhone Cost in Japan: Prohibitive?

June 17th, 2008 12 comments

Sbip-LlA couple of pretty bad pieces of news reportedly just leaked out about the iPhone in Japan: it could cost as much as ¥10,800 ($99) per month for the full plan–not counting many of the calls dialed. A 300-minute plan costs an additional $75. Presumably you could still get 40-yen-per-minute calls without the extra plan.

What Japan Thinks published a supposedly leaked pricing plan. According to the document, the 8GB phone costs ¥61,920 ($575), but is discounted (only when certain plans are bought?–it’s unclear) down to ¥19,200 ($180) over a 2-year period, or about ¥800 ($7.50) per month. That’s just for the phone; reasonable.

Then you are able to sign up for the “White Plan,”“ for ¥980 ($9.10) a month, which gives you unlimited free calls to family members, unlimited free calls to SoftBank clients until 9pm, and all other calls are ¥42 ($.39) per minute. I could live with that–I only make about a half dozen phone calls a month to people other than Sachi, and some of them might be SoftBank users. Under this plan, my phone bill might be only a few hundred yen (a few dollars) a month.

But then there’s data–they really sock you for the data plans. For email–Mobile Me and Yahoo only (I don’t use Yahoo, nor will I)–you get unlimited mail for ¥1800 ($17) per month. I would sign up for Mobile Me, and all other email I could forward to my Mobile Me account. But still, $17 just for email.

Then comes the data plan: ¥6800 ($63) for the unlimited data plan. Ouch. I mean, ouch. Maybe that’s a standard fee in Japan, I don’t know–all I know is that I don’t think I could possibly justify that. Fortunately, the iPhone switches to WiFi automatically whenever a network is detected. I have WiFi at home, and I have my old Airport Express base station, which I could easily set up at work. That would cover my data usage most of the time; I would then, presumably, just use only as much data as I absolutely had to, at what I think is ¥76 ($.70) per minute. It would have to be commando raid stuff. But this would normally be how I use my phone–mostly at home and in the office. I don’t think I could justify $63 a month for the odd impulse browsing while I was walking around town. Pricey.

In short, SoftBank’s data plan would break my bank, so I’d have to simply give up on that one. That is, of course, presuming the memo is for real. I have the distinct feeling that SoftBank is intentionally leaking this to gauge reaction. Hopefully there will be widespread dissatisfaction and they will lower the actual offered rates. But, like I said, I have no idea what data plans usually are in Japan, so this might actually be more or less standard. I’m just used to my basic ¥2000/mo call plan with minutes at ¥10 per; keitai rates have always seemed pricey to me. But if I want the iPhone, I may have to get used to them, and/or certain limitations.

Worse news still: only the 8GB model will be released on July 11; the 16GB model–which I have been waiting all this time for–won’t come out for another 2-3 weeks after that. Yargh. However, Sachi and I both planned to go SoftBank upon the iPhone release, and she’s going there less for the iPhone than simply because we can be on the same plan. So maybe she would be willing to let me steal hog monopolize borrow her phone for the first few weeks–a substantial thing for me, much less so for her.

Of course, (a) the memo could be fake, and/or (b) I could be reading the plans wrong. Is the data plan–apparently specially created for the iPhone–a flat rate, or does it build up with use? If it builds up to a ceiling of ¥6800, then what’s the floor, how many free minutes, and how much do you pay per packet/minute within the plan? And what about GPS? Is GPS counted as data? Or is that free?

Anyone who knows more than I do (i.e., anyone in Japan with a keitai) please set me straight….

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

I Hate Stupid Over-reactions

June 15th, 2008 5 comments

Due to last week’s knifing rampage, “authorities” are suspending Akihabara’s “open street” Sunday. In Japan, many heavily-visited shopping areas close the street to motor vehicle traffic and allow pedestrians to spill into and take over the entire street in order to avoid congestion and create a bit more of an open market atmosphere. Akihabara is not the only place where this happens; in Tokyo, the Ginza and I believe Shinjuku Boulevard also open up on Sundays. In fact, I can see a permanent “open street” from my balcony–Sunshine Street in Ikebukuro. Akihabara has been opening their main drag for visitors for 35 years.

Closing the street is not being done for safety reasons; after all, concentrating people on the sidewalks would, if anything, make it easier to kill more people. Perhaps in the sense of Akihabara Open Street being a famous event so it draws attackers, closing the street might seem useful–until you realize that an attacker looking for a famous area to attack would simply move on to one of the other open streets (which I believe are still open), and lacking those, would move on to other kinds of venues. At best, it would only displace the attack elsewhere. Not to mention that in 35 years, the open street hasn’t exactly been a murder magnet or anything.

No, this seems to be nothing more than an official attempt to make it look like the authorities are doing something. You know, like making everybody take off their shoes at airports. In Japan, this is a common reaction to a tragedy with no easy fix. I recall a while back, after the terror attack on a Spanish railway, some train lines in Japan reacted by removing trash cans from train platforms. Yeah, that really put a dent in terrorism. I bet scores of terrorists threw up their hands in surrender once they noticed the trash cans were gone.

In this case, beefing up and publicizing psychiatric counseling services would probably be a far better and more effective reaction, but would be harder, more expensive, and less sexy. So instead, they’re closing down the open street and beefing up police presence. Unfortunately, that’s another over-reaction: the police are now not only patrolling in gangs, but they are openly wielding nightsticks–not holstered, but always in hand–while stopping people seemingly at random and questioning them.

That ought to do wonders for business in Akihabara–I don’t want to go near the place already.

So we get these stupid over-reactions instead of doing what’s sensible–better psychiatric care (not a cure-all, but it would help) and a more sensible police presence all the time, not just after the fact. They ought to do something other than just make it seem like something is being done.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

Big One, Even 400 km Away

June 14th, 2008 4 comments

About half an hour ago, Sachi and I woke up to the building swaying: an earthquake, and a relatively sizable one. The building swayed strongly enough for us to notice pretty easily in bed, and the doors made creaking sounds as they swayed (probably what woke us more than the movement). The swaying here lasted for several minutes. The epicenter was 240 miles (400 km) distant.

My usual quake sites report a 6.7 on the Richter, but the TV is saying it was a 7.0; in Japanese quake scale terms, it was a “strong 6,” which is pretty huge. No major news stories on Google News yet.
No tidal wave concerns–it was way inland. Probably not too much fun in Iwate or Akita, in norther Honshu where the quake was centered–but the epicenter looks fairly sparsely populated. Still, probably a few small villages just got wiped out.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

SoftBank, Day 2

June 11th, 2008 3 comments

BiphnThe SoftBank store I pass on the way to work had iPhone posters up today, announcing the July 11 release date–and pretty much nothing else. You can go inside and put in a reservation for a phone, but I have a feeling that is mostly for SoftBank to (a) gauge interest in the new product, and (b) get new phone numbers and email addresses for their mailing lists. You give your name, mobile number, email address, and what model you want.

But the guy behind the counter will not promise a thing–not even that the application will reserve an early purchase for you. That’s the hope, he’ll tell you, but there’s no guarantee. No price yet, but the guy seemed to think that it was unlikely that the iPhone would be subsidized, and thought that a 50,000 yen (about $500) price was more likely than not. He wouldn’t even say if the usual member plans would apply to the iPhone. It seems that they are trained to say that nothing is certain, assume the worst, and maybe people could be pleasantly surprised later on.

News reports say that the price point will be the same in Japan as it is overseas; this source says they will start at ¥20,000 yen, this one says that “prices in Japan have yet to be decided but they will be comparable to those overseas, according to sources close to the matter.” If this is true, then I’m getting the 16GB model and Sachi will probably get the 8GB one. But I doubt it’ll be ¥20,000; hardware almost never costs less in Japan than in the U.S. In fact, Apple hardware in Japan usually has a 5~15% surcharge over U.S. prices. $199 is ¥21,450 now, so I suspect that ¥23,500 (8GB) and ¥35,000 (16GB) is not too much to expect at the low end.

Th guy at the Softbank store did say that about seventy people had signed the forms for an iPhone at that location since they put the posters up that morning.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

Now That’s Keeping a Secret Really Well

June 10th, 2008 1 comment

Well, here’s a hoot: I just called the SoftBank support line, and it seems I knew more about it than the operator did–she told me that the iPhone would be available “later this year,” and insisted that their web page had no press release. Even after I walked her through the process for reloading the web page, she claimed that she still did not see the updated press release. I had to read off the URL for the specific press release, and only then did she see it.

Talk about keeping it super-secret!

I can only guess that they didn’t anticipate immediate calls. I made my call only about ten minutes after they opened for the day–but still, I am very surprised that they were not already getting lots of calls on this.

Update: only a few minutes later, the gal at SoftBank called back. She was very nice, but she didn’t have any details beyond the press release (and not even that until I told her about it!). No pricing or anything else yet. Next call: the Apple Store. Not yet, though, as I have to get ready and go to work. And not that I expect them to have any more info on pricing….

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

iPhone Japan: July 11 from SoftBank

June 10th, 2008 1 comment

I guess you didn’t want my business after all, DoCoMo–and you may very well lose my wife’s business, too. She mentioned a while back that she wanted to be on the same service as me.

But the big news is the release date; despite what the people at the SoftBank store told me last week, the iPhone will be released in Japan on July 11, much sooner than I expected–exactly the same time as everywhere else, in fact. No information on pricing, but you can bet that I’ll be calling SoftBank soon about that.

Disappointments: it’s still only 8GB and 16GB, and the camera is still only 2 megapixels. What’s with that, Apple? Leaving room for an upgrade a few months later in case sales sag?

Not disappointed: no video camera on the front. Sure, it would have been fun, but far from necessary. The features of MobileMe look a lot more appealing. I’ll probably be finally breaking down and getting that.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

Will the iPhone Sell in Japan?

June 7th, 2008 3 comments

Yesterday, my boss wanted to know what his cell phone number was. It’s not forgetfulness–many of us don’t know that because we never call our cell phones or even give the number out very often. I’ve had my cell phone for more than eight years, and I still don’t know my own number. But the problem my boss had was, he had no idea how to get the number from his own cell phone. So he handed the phone to me, the usual go-to guy for tech issues at my workplace, so I could figure it out. Now, on my own phone, I know how to do this–press Function and then Zero–but someone else had to show me–it was not marked in any menu, nor was it self-evident. It was more like an easter egg, in fact. And when my boss handed me his cell phone, I wasn’t able to figure it out myself. Now, the self-number is a no-brainer as far as features go–almost everybody has to access this from time to time. It should be self-evident, or at least not too hard to figure out. But I couldn’t find it. I went through all the obvious feature-access buttons and cruised the menus (most in English, though the phone sometimes jarringly switched to Japanese), tried sub-menu after sub-menu, checking all the logical suspects. After three minutes or so, I had to hand the phone back in defeat; I could not figure it out.

My own phone is not too dissimilar; it also has lots of features that I wouldn’t mind accessing from time to time. However, most of them are so buried in user-unfriendly toolbars and menus that it would be simply far too much work to figure out. Multiple menus with features too similar to each other to figure out why they have different menus, some features buried in seemingly unassociated menus, bad icon choices for many of the menus in the first place. To use any feature, I would have to dig out my manual (Japanese only except for a brief user’s guide in English, so I have to go into Japanese for any non-basic task) and teach myself how to use it.

The problem here is, unless you use a feature every few weeks–and many phone features you would not use so often–you can easily forget how to do it. Plus, if the task you want to do should only take a few moments, but learning how to do it takes up a solid fifteen minutes, then it starts becoming too much trouble to look it up. If your phone has too many features, then you won’t access many of them often enough to learn how to access them.

A new Wired article makes some good points about this, explaining how massive feature creep has overloaded Japanese phones:

Indeed, Japanese handsets have become prime examples of feature creep gone mad. In many cases, phones in Japan are far too complex for users to master.

“There are tons of buttons, and different combinations or lengths of time yield different results,’” says Koh Aoki, an engineer who lives in Tokyo.

Experimenting with different key combinations in search of new features is “good for killing time during a long commute,” Aoki says, “but it’s definitely not elegant.”

Japan has long been famous for its advanced cellphones with sci-fi features like location tracking, mobile credit card payment and live TV. These handsets have been the envy of consumers in the United States, where cell technology has trailed an estimated five years or more. But while many phones would do Captain Kirk proud, most of the features are hard to use or not used at all.

Now, remember that the primary argument saying why the iPhone will fail in Japan is that it will be a yawner next to most Japanese cell phones, which have for some time featured much of what the iPhone offers, and often much more. While the feature sets in Japan have indeed been rich for a long time, that’s not what makes the iPhone special.

What makes the iPhone special is that it is easy to use. I don’t even have an iPhone, and only used one for a few minutes while helping my sister get used to hers last December, but I am fairly certain that I could have found my boss’ number without any trouble had it been an iPhone. Just go to the contacts, I’m pretty sure it’ll be there. Or else go to the settings, it should be there, too. I just expect these things from an Apple product. (Can anyone with an iPhone confirm that you can get your number either of these ways?)

Japanese cell phones are not like this. I tried using some of those feature-rich ones a few times when I passed a cell phone shop and had some time to look. It was painfully hard. I had a tough time understanding what the heck to do even when I got the salesperson to switch the phone to English (it took them a minute or two to figure even that out themselves). After ten minutes with a nice-looking phone, I decided that I did not want to use the damned thing, as attractive as all its touted features were. Not to mention that some of the “great” features are in fact dogs:

“When I show this to visitors from the U.S, they’re amazed,” Hayashi says. “They think there’s no way anybody would want an iPhone in Japan. But that’s only because I’m setting it up for them so that they can see the cool features.”

In actuality, Hayashi says, the P905i is fatally flawed. The motion sensors are painfully slow, and the novelty of using them is quickly replaced with frustration. And 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.

“There’s nothing more annoying than choppy TV noises,” Hayashi says.

Long story short: Japanese phones have far too steep a learning curve, making most features unusable, and many of the features people would use are not as great as they seem.

That’s where the iPhone does its magic. You can do things with it. The list of features may not be as long, but they are good features, and you can use more of them, more easily. The list of usable features on an iPhone beats out the other phones. The web browsing is huge. Email is good, and the keyboard allows for much easier typing. Visual voice mail is a no-brainer. Google Maps with the search features tied in is huge (I know Sachi and I will use that a lot). The GPS almost certain to be included soon will make it even more attractive (I will use that so much when on my scooter). And you can easily forget that this is an iPod, with hi-res (for a handheld device) video, and the iPhone will probably get video telephony with the new models. Then there will be the app store, allowing for huge expandability. And odds are that most Japanese will be able to figure out more of these features, faster and with less reliance on manuals. Certainly, my boss would have never asked me for help that time if he’d had an iPhone.

That’s a big part of why I really want an iPhone myself. Before the iPhone was announced eighteen months ago, all I really wanted was a cell phone that could sync calendar and address book info with my Mac–I would have switched to another phone instantly had I found it (especially if it were bluetooth-ready). The iPhone delivers a great deal more than that. So despite living in the Nation of Advanced Cell Phones, I will wait for however long it takes to get an iPhone. And as soon as Japanese users–conditioned to simply take the standard Japanese fare without question–begin to see and hear about what the iPhone can do, it will take off.

It might take a year or two, but it will eventually trend that way. I seem to recall that when the iPod was introduced in Japan, people similarly predicted it would have trouble catching on because the Japanese market was already saturated with and dominated by advanced, domestic-produced music players. But today, when I walk around town, I see most people using iPods. The success was not immediate, as I suspect the iPhone’s will not be. But the iPhone should succeed despite the naysayers’ reasons, in just the same way as the iPod did before.

Unfortunately, we may need to wait a little longer: I dropped by the SoftBank store a few days ago, and the clerks there said they had no more info that was in the terse press release–but that they doubted the iPhone would be released soon. They have already released their summer line of phones, and new phones require setting up with the service. The clerk said a Fall release was the soonest he expected it, and it might even have to wait until the winter line comes out.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Mac News Tags:

Another Reason to Not Like Japanese Traffic Cops

June 4th, 2008 5 comments

I ran out of gas on the way in to work this morning, so I had to stop and fill up–and as a result, I was running a few minutes late. Still, I took care as usual when driving–did not exceed the speed limit (at least not by any more than everyone else did), and followed the traffic rules.

But then, not too far from work, after just rounding a corner, a motorcycle cop on foot flagged me down and waved me to the roadside. It was the typical speed trap–they have some guy with a radar gun right before the turn, and when you trip the sensor, they pull you over. Except I hadn’t been speeding.

Still, you get the usual range of surprise, fear, adrenaline, and (in this case) anger, when you get pulled over. It is an extremely unpleasant feeling, as your mind races over the fees and the points against your license, and the problems with renewing your license later on. No one enjoys getting pulled over by a cop.

So I pull over and a police woman approaches me. And hands me a package of tissue. What the…? It is accompanied by a flier, telling of traffic fatalities. “There have been a lot of accidents here, so be careful!” she starts out. Exasperated, I explain that I am late and don’t have time for this. She says something I don’t catch, then waves me on.

I was reminded of a story I once heard, of a woman who was driving along and a cop started his siren and pulled her over. It turned out that he wanted to compliment her on her good driving. She was livid. And so was I. The police have no business pulling people over for stuff like that–I was driving within speed limits, safely, and wearing better gear than most (a firmly-starpped-on full-face helmet, where most scooter drivers wear cheapo top-of-the-head-only plastic helmets, often loosely applied). Police must know they scare the crap out of people when they do that. A roadside sign would have done the job better. As I left the round-up, I was not more cognizant of traffic safety–I was seething at the police for needlessly scaring me and making me late, probably concentrating less on traffic safety as a result.

As I have written before, Japanese police, especially traffic police, are widely disrespected, and deservedly so.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

The Izakaya Experience

June 3rd, 2008 4 comments

If you’ve never been to Japan, then you probably have not even heard if the izakaya, a Japanese establishment that a great number of people here will frequent, at some time or another. It’s virtually part of the culture; at some point or another, your group will want to eat out, and the izakaya will be a natural choice.

Izakaya (居酒屋, three characters which literally mean stay-liquor-shop) is loosely translated as a “pub,” but is a bit more than that. You don’t just drop by for a pint. It’s kind of a cross between a pub and a full-blown restaurant, being neither of them, nor exactly a cross between the two.

Izakaya-03An izakaya is a place where workers go after the daily grind has ended to socialize. It serves food, but in a communal fashion–small dishes are brought in for everyone to grab from. But drinking is the prevalent activity; this is a place to drink a lot of beer or sours, a category of Japanese spirits doused with fruit syrup to make the alcohol go down more easily. It’s a place where you relax and get down with friends and coworkers, loosening the normal inhibitions, allowing you to talk more openly. Not that most westerners have a problem with this, but it helps a good deal with Japanese sometimes. But mostly it’s a place to go eat and drink after work.

Have you guessed yet that I have been to an izakaya tonight and don’t have much else to talk about?

Nevertheless, these establishments are a solid part of Japanese culture that merit being discussed. Much more than the bar around the corner or the pub down the street, more than a tapas establishment, this is a place almost everybody goes to once in a while–it’s almost a prerequisite to continued residence in Japan.

Some izakaya are ripoffs–they string you out on dishes, taking their time to deliver each course, counting on you to buy more and more of their over-priced drinks while waiting for more food to come–this in the case where you pay for each round of drinks separately, in which case they want to maximize on the drinking while skimping on the food.

But a good izakaya will have a nomi-houdai (all-you-can-drink) course with a solid menu of foods delivered tasty and on time; that was the place we all went to tonight after work. We have visitors from home campus in Wisconsin and wanted to show them a good time. Additionally, we had that rare occasion of fourteen souls and not one dedicated smoker–and the izakaya we chose had a private room for us. In an izakaya, that’s a blessing–one of the worst things about such establishments is the lack of non-smoking areas, so you wind up coming home with clothes and hair smelling like an ashtray.Izakaya-02

But tonight, we fared pretty well. We went to a joint that Sachi and I had visited a few times in Ikebukuro. When we went, we were taken aback at the prompt service; not enjoying an all-you-can-drink package, we expected the usual stringing-out of food dishes, and so ordered everything at once–and then it all arrived at once. Problem there. The next time, we ordered–using the handy wi-fi tablet menus–what we wanted and when we wanted it, and the food came fast, and well-prepared. A good place. I recommended it for our school dinner, and we were not disappointed. We got the ¥3000 ($29) per person set, which entitled us to two and a half hours of non-stop drinks, along with seven courses of pretty good food in sufficient quantity to satisfy everyone. A good deal.

In case you’re wondering, the place is Niju-maru, literally “two concentric circles,” which is their logo. Odd meaning for the name, but very good food and service.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:


May 31st, 2008 5 comments

Sachi and I are getting really, really tired of the bugs. Ever since we’ve moved in, they’ve been around. When we started spraying them, they receded for a bit but never disappeared. Now, they’re back with a vengeance.

0508-Bugs 1

0508-Bugs 2

I don’t know the specific type of bug they are (maybe someone out there can help), but they are small, noiseless, gnat-like bugs. While a friend claims they come out of the drains (we’ve never noticed them around the drains), my own theory is that they came in with the potted plants. When you disturb the dirt, you can see bugs of various sizes (but mostly the same shape) crawling around in there, and there are quite a few of them buzzing around the plants. They’re attracted to moisture, too–when we leave out a damp cloth on the kitchen counter, they tend to zero in on it. So I think they are drawn to the moist soil of the plants, lay their eggs there, and reproduce in that way.

While they tend to buzz around the windows and other light sources, they also have the massively annoying habit of flying right up to your face every minute or so. I just killed one that buzzed my glasses a moment ago, and as I write, Sachi is using our dustbuster (it has a sealed dust compartment) to snap up the ones buzzing in her part of the room. But what is amazing to us right now is just the sheer number. Although you never see more than a few at a a time, there seems to be an endless supply. I smush about a dozen every hour around my computer station, and a trip to the balcony window every hour can lead to your catching a dozen or so. I must have killed 30 or 40 yesterday, and Sachi and I zapped twice that many today, easily–and still they keep coming. It can’t be from the outside, we’re too high up for that.

We spray bug poison in the plant dirt, and will be resorting to a bug bomb on Monday, but if anyone knows of a solution we can use, we’ll be happy to hear it!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008, Ikebukuro Tags:

Free Pot at Narita!

May 27th, 2008 2 comments

A traveler arrived at Narita two days ago and left the airport with his bags 142 grams heavier than when he arrived. The officials at Narita kindly comped the visitor 5 ounces of marijuana, slipping it into his suitcase and leaving it there.

True story, though the intentions were different. A customs official put the marijuana into the bag as a real-world test for his pot-sniffing dog. The dog failed to find the cannabis, and the official failed to keep his eye on the bag. The customs people are not supposed to do this kind of thing–use actual travelers’ bags in exercises, that is (I’m fairly confident that they’re also not supposed to give away free pot).

This would be more funny if it weren’t for the fact that had this traveler continued on to a country in Asia where such baggage finds are not kindly looked upon, he or she could have been in deep, deep trouble.

The traveler apparently discovered the hashish and returned it to the airport officials. Only in Japan, eh?

Categories: Focus on Japan 2008 Tags:

Those Japanese Policemen Are Pretty Darn Smart

May 12th, 2008 1 comment

In Nagoya today, a man was arrested after dousing himself with kerosene. The police kept asking him to change out of his clothes, but he refused. The police didn’t seem capable of getting rid of the kerosene by either removing his clothing by coercion or force, or by shoving him into a shower and washing the stuff off of him.

Instead, they gave him cigarettes and a lighter.

Oh, I’m sorry, I misreported that. According to the news source, the man, who was being held in police custody, somehow “gained access to a lighter.”

Surprisingly, the man caught on fire.

Who could have seen that coming?