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It’s been a question that’s been asked by many of our readers here. Apple fanboys, maybe? But still.

How many iPhone have been sold in Japan?

Neither Apple or Softbank are releasing any official numbers on how many iPhones -and lately iPads– sold in Japan. The Cupertino company limits itself in pointing out the impressive growth in its quarterly earnings.

So I went ahead and asked as many analysts as I could think of. The smart ones only, don’t worry. And, no, I didn’t ask Steve Jobs.

The consensus is that 5 million iPhone have been sold in Japan since its debut on July 2008.

That’s 70% or more of the smartphone market in the country, if you believe surveys and expert firms.

Don’t dream, there’s no breakdown between the three models available here -3G, 3GS and the latest 4. But, to those who called the iPhone as a failure here, this is just a slap in the face.

Is the iPhone a success?

What constitutes a success is in the eye of the beholder. Every analyst, journalist, blogger I’ve asked the question to has his/her own definition of success. Some are impressed by the iPhone, some not at all. But, at least, they know what the Japanese market is like, how peculiar it is, and, more strikingly, how different it was before and after the iPhone. Next time you want to know about Japan, ask people who know about Japan, not some random copywriter just because he’s writing for an established paper in the US.

Now, 70% of the smartphone market? Smartphones do not even reach the 10% threshold in Japan. It’s still a rare beast -well, you could say that all Japan phones are smartphones, but let’s not get into this debate now, will you. And, if we believe unscientific but valuable analysis from those in the know, many users are getting an iPhone along with their existing keitai, beefing up the numbers a bit.

The iPhone has had limitations in Japan from the start. A peculiar Japanese-input system -even if that one is not as important now. No access to the web portals users are used to on their keitai and which brings all the insane services many people are drooling over abroad -like a train application that gives you the best routes & schedules, but also where to walk from one station to another if it’s raining along with the extra time it takes. A strange new mobile email address, without emojis at the start and still without all the decoration than every other dumb phone offers -don’t laugh, it is important for some segment of the market here. No digital TV tuner. No e-book store. No waterproof pink color choice.

And SoftBank. Wait, I don’t dislike the carrier, but it’s only the #3 in the race. It’s the used-to-be-foreign carrier (it was called Vodafone, you know). It has a lesser coverage, especially when compared with how good DoCoMo’s is.

But still. Not a single phone -even with three iterations- has ever held such a market share in Japan -hovering at 5%. Never. Ever. A phone from a newcomer -well, ok, Apple has historically been the only foreign electronic brand ranked at the top of consumer surveys. A candy bar smartphone in a world of clamshell keitais.

Just go to any electronic store in Tokyo and look at the sheer number of Japan-made iPhone accessories. It’s insane.

5 million is a success. Accept it.

The iPhone effect

I’m already seeing those who dislike Apple hitting me on Twitter and explaining them their view. Peeps, please. I’m known for having an everything-Apple setup. It doesn’t mean that I’m blind to realities.

Now, admit it. The Japanese mobile phone industry has changed since the iPhone arrival. Every other week, you’ve got one of the big three announcing a new smartphone, while this type of phones were just absent before -no Blackberry in the hands of CEOs, the odd Palm or WinPhone and that’s it. You just had to stroll through the aisles of the recent CEATEC in Tokyo to see that smartphones and tablets were on everybody’s booth -and lips. One could even argue that the whole SIM lock debate is partially to blame on the iPhone.

Come on, even the whole advertising campaign DoCoMo is running for the Samsung Galaxy S makes it look like an iPhone.

DoCoMo is clever: 1 in 4 of its users would get an iPhone. 25% of almost 60m subscribers.

So, yeah, thank God Android exists. After a few false starts with poor models, DoCoMo is getting serious in the smartphone game with that S beauty. KDDI is touting its Sharp IS03 flagship -plus the Skype partnership. And they’re great phones. I’ve tested both. They will be a success.

Estimates are than in less than five years, between 40 and 70% of sales (depending on which analyst you believe) will be coming from the smartphone segment in a cellphone-saturated-Japan -sales estimates range between 10 and 13% for 2010. They also estimate that most mobile revenues will come from these higher-priced devices. Factor in the fact that DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank already derive most of their revenue from data. That mobile advertising already brought more than USD 1bn in 2009 and you’ve got the storyline for the market in the next five years.

DoCoMo might have started the application market more than 10 years ago with the i-mode, there has never been the same rush of developers creating for them than its the case with the iTunes App Store -just log on there and witness the incredible number of local apps. DoCoMo had the standard. It had the control. Apple displaced that control. SoftBank has no say over what is coming to the iPhone. The revenue stream is shifting.

While the story will be slightly different with Android, KDDI installing its own Android app market and DoCoMo creating a portal -not a store per se-, the end game is that data will be revenue. Data + ads + mobile commerce will be revenue.

Users are loving it. Developers are loving it. Carriers are loving it. Big party with balloons and hugs. Well, not exactly, we don’t live in a perfect world, but you see the idea -and the opportunities for everyone.

Don’t read the 5m iPhones sold into an ode to Apple. Don’t even believe the 5m number if you wish, I don’t care.

Read this as the sign that the mobile market ecosystem in Japan is evolving.

Darwinism is hitting the Galapagos.

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