It’s 7 p.m. on Sunday, and I’m standing shoulder to shoulder inside a six-floor electronics store in the heart of downtown Nagoya, a bustling city in the center of Japan. Nagoya is a gadget wonderland full of young men with spiky hair and women with a penchant for outrageous fashion and mounds of makeup that make them look like modern-day geisha.
Surely, I thought, I’d see hot and fashionable iPhones and iPads galore—but I was wrong.
Japan is considered the mobile epicenter of the world, and the iPhone made its way to the land of the rising sun in the summer of 2008. Industry watchers didn’t think the iPhone would play well among Japanese consumers, but they were wrong. According to a survey by MM Research Institute, 1.7 million iPhones have been sold in Japan, a whopping 72.2 percent of the smartphone market.
Like AT&T, Softbank, the wireless carrier for Apple in Japan, has faced criticism as iPhones strain its data network. In response, Softbank began offering free 3G femtocells, or micro base stations, that cover a house or small area. The idea is to provide coverage brick by brick.
Meanwhile, the iPad launched in Japan in May to rousing success. Softbank had to stop taking reserve orders after only three days. One of the hit iPad apps is manga (or Japanese comics) e-book titles. Hitoshi Koide, president of Tokyo-based eBook Initiative Japan Co., told the Wall Street Journal that the number of manga downloads has already reached “tens of thousands.”
So where are all the iPhones and iPads? I didn’t see anybody with an iPad during my stay in Japan, and a single woman talking on a white iPhone in the former capital, Kyoto, on an obscure side street. There were only a few people talking or texting on their mobile phones—mostly brightly colored flip phones—while navigating traffic on busy sidewalks. This was the mobile capital of the world?
One week in Nagoya and Kyoto doesn’t make me an expert on iPhones and iPads in Japan. But the odd absence was startling given the well-documented boon of iPhone sales. In comparison, you’re bound to see people tapping on their iPhones at almost every block, bar and café in San Francisco’s financial district (which is why AT&T’s data network gets bogged down there).
I was also struck by what the few Japanese people were doing with their mobile phones: talking (with some texting). Among San Franciscans, the phone app is probably the third or fourth most heavily used iPhone app behind texting, email and location-based apps. We don’t have a problem fiddling with apps in the company of friends, but perhaps in the Japanese culture this is considered rude.
Along these lines, coffee shops—yes, Starbucks has made its way to Japan—weren’t dotted with islands of people tapping furiously on their laptops like you’d see in the United States, at least not at the few coffee shops I found. People actually had conversations with each other. I quickly understood that there is a time and place for work and play among the Japanese, and they rarely overlap.
All tallied, I saw only a small percentage of people using their mobile phones despite the hordes of people crowding the streets, stores and subways, even though I knew that most people probably had a phone. This is a far cry from the Silicon Valley digerati whose obsession over their iPhone borders on addiction, especially if it’s a shiny, new iPhone 4. (Check out Eight Signs You’re an iPhone Addict.)
Maybe in Japan there were iPhones and iPads stuffed in briefcases, purses and pockets to be used and shown at the proper time. Like the thick makeup made popular by geisha, maybe what you see is only what they want you to see.
Later, a friend who has lived in Japan for many years let me in on a secret that helps explain why I didn’t see iPhones. In the U.S., he says, the iPhone’s switch to turn off sound is called “silent mode.” In Japan, it’s called “manner mode.”
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at email@example.com.
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.