The Japanese were using their cellphones to watch TV, navigate with GPS, download music, make movies, pay bills, and check their emails years before American consumers were doing the same. Japan also had touchscreen phones eight years earlier than iPhone -- the Pioneer J-PE01. And yet it is no surprise that Apple's iPhone was the best-selling phone in Japan last year. After over a decade of trouncing any foreign handset looks and talent-wise, Japan's legendary ketai are been given the heave-ho in favor of foreign models.
Take NEC, once one of the world's biggest IT and telecoms firms. Its fortunes have been typical of the other seven Japanese handset makers. After two years of losses and a stock value that has fallen over 90% in a decade, it is selling off its mobile phone sales unit and cutting 10,000 mobile related jobs. Analysts say the firm can't compete anymore with Apple (AAPL) and Korea's Samsung.
What happened? Japanese mobile phone guru Nobuyuki Hayashi believes there are three main reasons Japan has fallen out of love with its own handset makers. First, he says, you have to understand what a colossal and unexpected hit the iPhone was with Japanese women. "The iPhone has been very strong among women from very early on. The original round plastic iPhone 3G series soon become a fashion item for Japanese women who also enjoyed the huge variation of cases and ease of decoration. Then there is the brand loyalty of Japanese women."
Japan had phones just as good-looking as the iPhone. The once popular Infobar candy bar phone even won international design prizes. But the craze for the iPhone, despite lacking all the bells and whistles Japanese telecoms executives thought were indispensable (e-wallet, TV, etc) proved overwhelming.
According to IDC Japan, the iPhone was the No. 1 best-seller for 2012 in both handsets and smartphones. Quite a feat for a phone that the country's ketai-watchers and industry leaders said would fail at the start. Apple now has 15% market share putting it ahead of Japan's Sharp and Fujitsu, which both enjoy 14% of the market according to IDC. Japan's top mobile provider, NTT Docomo (DCM), which does not carry the iPhone, hit back by promoting mostly foreign-made smartphones like Samsung's Galaxy.
But this won't help the attempts to defeat Apple according to Mr. Hayashi who says that the way the phone industry operates here leads to an inferior product. "The phone operators produce almost each and every mobile phones sold in Japan. Even the phones by Nokia (NOK) or Samsung are modified to match the special requirement by the operators to include features that operators believe are important such as e-wallet, One-Seg TV receiver and wide range of special services by the operators," he says.