In Japan, barely a ripple

Times Staff Writer

Tomoaki Kurita presides over racks of cellphones lined up outside his shop on a busy sidewalk in Harajuku, Tokyo’s catwalk of youth street culture where people attracted by the riot of phone options can stop to flip open and fondle the latest models of what the Japanese call keitai.

From behind his busy counter, Kurita giggles when asked about the excitement in America over the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, which can also be used to download music and surf the Internet.

“Sounds like business as usual,” he says.

On the day when stock markets swooned and techies buzzed over Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs’ long-awaited entry into the mobile-phone market, Japanese consumers could be excused for wondering: Why the fuss?

Yes, the iPhone seemed to reaffirm Apple’s ability to wow with design. Its finger-driven navigation might bring a new level of sophistication to the way cellphones operate. But many Japanese had a harder time buying Jobs’ line about “reinventing” the phone.


“Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” Jobs said as he unveiled the iPhone on Tuesday at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco.

But the revolution is already well underway in Japan, where cellphones are used for everything. Besides downloading music and surfing the Net, Japanese use their cellphones to navigate their way home by global positioning system, to buy movie tickets and to update personal blogs from wherever they are.

They have been a natural extension of daily life here for the last few years, spurred by Japan’s decision to be the first country to upgrade to third-generation mobile-phone networks, or 3G, which increase broadband capabilities and allow for better transmission of voice and data.

Apple’s iPhone, by comparison, will operate on a second-generation network.

It was 3G that sparked the boom in music downloads that makes it common for phones to be used as portable digital music players here.

And it is 3G that has led the Japanese into a world where they can watch live TV on their phones and use them as a charge card to ride trains or buy milk at the corner store or take a taxi. Ticket Pia, Japan’s major entertainment ticketing agency, has been selling e-mail tickets to cellphones since October 2003. The phones also can be used to conduct conference calls among as many as five people.

Another widely used 3G feature enables users to point cellphone cameras at bar codes and be directed to websites. For example, every seat in the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball stadium has a bar code, which takes a cellphone to a special home page where users can subscribe to get “inside” information and columns not available on the regular team site.


Also, every Marine game can be watched, live, on a phone.

As with other Japanese baseball clubs, cellphones can be used to buy tickets. Teams have examined the possibility of installing turnstiles that would allow ticket holders to enter stadiums by swiping their cellphones across the terminal. That technology is already used at some movie theaters. And cellphones can be loaded with prepaid credit and then be swiped at terminals to allow access to Japanese trains.

Most observers contend the U.S. has begun to close the gap on mobile-phone use with Japan, South Korea and Europe.

Music downloads by cellphone are rising in the U.S. The long-term threat to iTunes’ commanding lead in downloads was a major force behind Apple’s entry into mobile phones. Other functions are on the way.

“We plan to introduce one-way videoconferencing in the U.S. this year,” said spokeswoman Melissa Elkins of LG Electronics MobileCOMM. The function would allow one person to be visible to another caller over a cellphone. Two-way videoconferencing has already been available in South Korea for about 18 months, Elkins said.

But the biggest difference between the U.S. and countries like Japan is not the array of bells and whistles on cellphones but the cultural differences the keitai has created.

Keitai form a cyber social network in a highly mobile society. To wait for a light on a Tokyo street corner or to ride a train is to see crowds of people with their heads down, thumbs pumping as they send photos, write text messages or play online games on their phones. Increasingly, they are reading books and manga, or comic books, on their phones too.

The keitai has also become an extension of personality. There is software to create a personalized home page for a cellphone. Young men and women customize their phones by hanging tiny dolls off them and covering them with stickers and paints.

“I like it because it’s cute,” says Mami Nawa, 23, as she shows off the dial pad she has painted in purple and pink tones. “And with my long nails, the paint gives me a better feel for the phone.”

Nawa spent about $170 on her sharp phone, and $25 more to decorate it, though she says some friends spend much more on decorations. But neither she nor her friend Makiko Yamada, who are sampling the phones in Harajuku, would ever pay anything close to $500 for a cellphone. A hundred dollars, tops, Yamada says.

Apple might find it hard to lead a revolution with iPhone priced as an elite gadget.

Like other Japanese consumers, Nawa and Yamada pick and choose the functions they want. They don’t use their phones as charge cards -- known here as the “wallet function.” But they check train schedules and have made hotel reservations with their phones. They keep their music on their phones and subscribe to daily e-mails that deliver news headlines and daily fortune telling. They use their phones to shop on online sites and bid in online auctions.

It’s a dynamic market. After buying mobile company Vodafone’s Japanese operations, the Internet company Softbank Corp. has made a splash with a campaign claiming to offer significant savings for customers who switch to its service.

That process has been made easier by industry changes allowing customers to take their phone numbers with them when they switch carriers.

Softbank’s ad campaign features actress Cameron Diaz. Across Japan, Diaz stares out from posters and billboards, a Softbank phone pressed to her ear. In TV ads, she stumbles down a street, struggling to keep her phone to her ear.

Diaz is talking. Not watching TV or shooting digital video or checking her horoscope. Just talking.

How American.