Japan at 8am this morning was really on another planet. From the looks of it, the Japanese really love the iPhone.

What struck me was that the three Japanese carriers have taken a different approach in marketing the iPhone .

These carrier philosophies were quite glaring at the iPhone launch events they held in Tokyo.

DOCOMO, glitz and emotion

The newcomer when it comes to the Apple device, went for two approaches. The first one: a very aggressive pricing strategy. The second is a mix of glitz and emotion. After personally delivering pastries and, appropriately, apple juice to some of those who had queued for the iPhone, the carrier’s president, Karuo Kato, stood in front of the Marunouchi store, shaking the hands of the first buyers. Standing next to him was no other than Ken Watanabe, the famous Japanese actor that rose to an international recognition with movies like The Last Samurai and Inception. Horikita Maki, a mix of TV actress and tarento, was also all smiles.

Kato shared his excitement to the press, telling how he almost teared when customers were thanking him to finally bring the iPhone to DOCOMO , even affirming his legs shook.

The launch event had a feeling of enduring loyalty, a bit paternalistic. It’s as if DOCOMO was peacefully saying Welcome Back Home to those who had strayed .

SoftBank, familiarity and reassurance

One could feel that SoftBank was a bit on the defensive this time around. Representing the carrier was Ken Miyauchi, the Executive Vice President. No Masayochi Son around. Was it because SoftBank has nothing really new to offer? Or was it because it was business as usual?

The latter was the intent. The message was clear: SoftBank knows the iPhone, it has carried it first, customers should feel comfortable . The carrier’s customer care is the best and longest trained for the device, many employees certified by Apple itself. "It’s a familiar phone for SoftBank, trust us" could have been one tagline.
Miyauchi touted how smartphone users were satisfied with the carrier: it has won first place in smartphone satisfaction and LTE satisfaction in a recent Impress survey1.

And, you guessed it, a tarento was there too—no Japanese event truly goes without—Aya Ueto . Just that she maybe wasn’t an enough diversion to cover a perceptible anxiety. Reassurances about the LTE network were hammered to the crowd.

SoftBank has always had a relatively bad reputation about its network quality, something that cruelly feels sometimes more like a narrative than reality2. Miyauchi even downplayed the low-frequency band—essential for a better building penetration— the competition was deploying for LTE. He has no choice, SoftBank’s 900MHz band is used for 3G and won’t be transitioning towards 4G until next summer.

Of note, SoftBank chose Ginza, the tradition, over Omotesando, the up-and-coming, to launch the iPhone. A reflection of where the carrier stands.

au/KDDI, 800, and 800, and 800

It’s in trendy Harajuku in its no-less trendy "Design Studio" event space that KDDI’s President, Takashi Tanaka introduced the two new lines of iPhone.

The presentation slides carefully explained what was exactly 800MHz. Show Aikawa—the Japanese actor who impersonates KDDI on advertising—carried a giant sign that read 800MHz. The hostesses wore T-shirts with a big 800MHz printed on the back. A newspaper-like printout headlined with 800 was handed out to those waiting outside. Even the bottled water was branded with 8003.

It is not reported if Ayame Gouriki, the tarento of the day, had a secret 800 tattoo.

Yes, au/KDDI was all about LTE, LTE, LTE. An otaku-like obsession about 800MHz, almost eclipsing the iPhone unveiling.

It’s true that the carrier has been touting its supposedly faster and better LTE deployment for months now. It has rolled 4G out on multiple bands—800MHz, 1.5GHz and 2.1GHz—and understandably wants to bet big on reliability and capacity of its network. One couldn’t however miss reading the veiled attack towards SoftBank—the carrier that has been eating its cake since 2007.


So there you have it, the new persona of the Japanese carriers: the comforting father, DOCOMO, the fresh graduate, SoftBank, and the geek, au/KDDI.


  1. a Nikkei survey also had SoftBank faring well

  2. various speed tests in Tokyo seem to show that, for the moment, SoftBank holds very well in the capital, if not beats the competition. 

  3. the lower band has been nicknamed Platinum in Japan: the bottles of water supposedly contained platinum 

Do you know why I don’t want to track every subscription plan change in Japan? This is not a price comparison website, but most and foremost, it’s more complex that believed and it changes often.

That latter part has always been accelerating when a popular phone was released—the iPhone being a prime example. Competition is not the only factor: even when SoftBank exclusively introduced the iPhone in 2008, it adapted the plan a few days into the launch.

It’s no surprise that the race is on for this coming weekend—the iPhone will fly off the shelves.

A post by Intermezzo very accurately compares the iPhone offers between the three carriers. In a nutshell, DOCOMO is beating its competitors on iPhone subsidy  by quite a margin—SoftBank and au/KDDI being quite close to each other.1

That DOCOMO has the most aggressive pricing plans is not a surprise: DOCOMO wants to fight back with the iPhone . It does not even differentiate that much between new and existing customers, everyone would get an aggressive subsidy2 whereas the SoftBank and au/KDDI would treat an existing customer much worse.

The sign that the pricing war is heating up? The DOCOMO special deal for students was the best by very far3. Yesterday, losing no time, SoftBank announced it would match DOCOMO’s student deal. Could au/KDDI do ignore this? Not even a few hours later, it matched it.

DOCOMO still has an edge on overall pricing. But, who knows, that could change very quickly.

  1. the calculation was made on how much an iPhone would cost a user for a 2 year contract period. 

  2. which also translates into a comparatively much higher penalty if one decides to cancel the contract before its end on DOCOMO. 

  3. luring in students—as in customers below 22 basically—with number portability by offering them a discount valid three years 

Josh Horwitz on TechInAsia:

Line has never publicly released concrete figures for its active userbase. However, at Digital Taipei 2013, it did state that 80 percent of users in Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand were classified as “active.”

Active users is often a missing metric, not to mention that the definition of “active” can be anything—from updated a profile in the last seven days to logged in once in the last 30. 192 million active users for Line seems very generous  indeed. I would assume that it’s around 80 million and probably 30 million daily users.

Read the entire article, it’s a good one.1

  1. hint: for those who are not used to this style of blogging, just click on the title of this blog post to get to the original article. 

Miho Inada and Mayumi Negishi on WSJ’s JapanRealTime:

more than 500 people waited on lines stretching several blocks outside Apple’s store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza neighborhood.

They braved typhoons, waited and waited, all vying for the gold:

we took turns going out for food, going back home to take showers. I spent time sleeping out here, too, lying down on a cardboard box

In the words of DOCOMO’s President, Kaoru Kato:

So many customers told me how long they had waited” for DoCoMo to carry the iPhone … “It was enough to bring tears to my eyes.”

As he said himself a few weeks ago:

the Japanese love the iPhone. Maybe more than Americans .


Nikkei BP Consulting:

Combining the results of our study with demographic data, it can be estimated that smartphones have a 28.2% penetration rate in Japan .1

Although I’ve always felt that the lines could be blurry between what constitutes “a conventional feature phone” and a smartphone, the study found that almost 60% of people still owned the former, while around 33% had upgraded to a smartphone. The remainder own two or more phones —and the vast majority at least one smartphone.

Interestingly, in terms of satisfaction—a basket of fee structure, services, features, call quality, etc.—, au/KDDI comes on top followed by SoftBank. DOCOMO, usually seen has having the best overall network when you ask snap questions, is lagging. If you narrow the questioning down to satisfaction towards smartphones, SoftBank comes on top, a proof that its smartphone strategy has been right all along.

Last but not least, the study looked a mobile payment—from mobile wallets to app stores, music or online mobile shopping. The results are staggering: mobile transactions amount to more than USD 42bn in Japan  (of which online shopping comprises of half). That’s a 71% increase year-on-year.

And NFC-based transaction amount for a fourth of those.


  1. liberal translation mine 

Mobile Marketing Data:

At 34.1%, the iPhone is the most widely owned smartphone by seniors1

The survey was done with people aged 65+. It shows that the iPhone is overwhelmingly the most owned smartphone for seniors , followed by the Aquos, manufactured by Sharp and quite heavily pushed by DOCOMO. In third place, the Sony Xperia. The Samsung Galaxy is in fifth place.

82.5% of those use a smartphone to frequently access the internet. If you had those who do it sometimes, that’s a whopping 92.6% of seniors who use their mobile devices to go online.

Now only 23% of that age segment have a smartphone and only a very few want to upgrade to this class of phones. DOCOMO is still the favored network, a sign of lasting loyalty.

  1. liberal translation mine 

WhatJapanThinks, in February 2007:

Q3: When upgrading your mobile, what are the features that are important to you. (Sample size=1,000, multiple answer)

Memory card: 342. Music playback: 199. One Seg (terrestrial digital TV): 195

I was reminded of this survey by Benedict Evans, who sensibly says:

What Japanese consumers thought was important in a phone in 2007  – a good example of the problem of relying on user surveys.

You should subscribe to his weekly newsletter, one of the best when it comes to mobility: ben-evans.com/newsletter

Mayumi Negishi for the WSJ:

DoCoMo abandoned its policy to protect all its suppliers equally from competition from global smartphone heavyweights.

It all started crumbling down in 2008 for Japanese phone manufacturers . Since then, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, NEC, Panasonic have abandoned the game. Nokia’s Japanese efforts stopped that same year. Kyocera lingers. Fujitsu keeps going niche. Toshiba wants a new youth. Sharp, once so strong, is probably a bit too comfortable in the arms of DoCoMo not to be anxious of the forthcoming iPhone on the same network.

From IT Media:

According to the survey targeting current iPhone owners, 47.3% say they won’t buy a new iPhone. 39.5% will wait and see as they are undecided. 11.6% will upgrade to the iPhone 5s, 1.4% to the iPhone 5c . 0.2% said they would buy both.1

Although it’s only a quick internet survey, it’s interesting to see the relative disinterest for the iPhone 5c. Obviously, respondents might have skewed towards a geek crowd, who know that the 5c is only marginally better than the current 5. But I believe that the 5c is a phone for first-time iPhone buyers , and those who haven’t upgraded to the 5.

The survey points out that the two main reasons behind the unwillingness to upgrade are a perceived absence of true difference with the iPhone 5 and the lock-in into a 2-year contract2

  1. liberal translation mine 

  2. only au/KDDI has publicized its trade-in plans to this day. 

Looking at my analytics, people are clearly looking for a great Japanese dictionary app . The guys behind ‘Japanese for iOS’ are doing a great job in my opinion.

Japanese contains more than 170000 entries. It is based on the well-known JMdict but goes much further.

More than 70000 example sentences from different contexts show native usage. All sentences feature readings as well as English translations for easy understanding. Tap any word to see its definition.

The team is based in Fukuoka, the 12th Most Livable City on the planet, according to Monocle‘s 2013 rankings. Lucky you!

Lina Noviandari for TechInAsia:

Japan-based mobile messaging company Line continues to grow fast. Its Line Game platform and suite of mobile games has surpassed 200 million downloads, NHN Japan revealed today. That’s only 14 months after the initial launch of gaming within the app.

50 million in December 2012, 100 million in March 2013, 150 million in June. Line adds 50 million downloads every quarter . Impressive.

It appears that none of the Japanese carriers are accepting iPhone 5s pre-orders , all slated to start on September 13th.

DOCOMO should open pre-ordering for the iPhone 5c only, at stores and online. That latter option will be restricted to its premium members—and only the 30,000 first of them. No decision has apparently been made on the 5s.

au/KDDI says it probably won’t accept pre-orders for the iPhone 5s.

SoftBank has put up an answer in its website’s FAQ section clearly stating that the iPhone 5s will only be available on September 20th, the date of the release. The 5c can be reserved starting on the 13th, both in stores and online.

It’s unclear why all three carriers chose to do so. Or maybe they didn’t. Will the iPhone 5s early availability be extremely limited?


UPDATE: Several readers point out to this being an Apple decision as no iPhone 5s are available to pre-order anywhere worldwide. It still raises the question of low inventory at launch.

Horace Dediu and Dirk Schmidt for Asymco:

It’s one thing to suggest that Nintendo consoles have “failed”, it’s another to show that Nintendo consoles and portables have failed, and yet another to show that two competitors in the games business seem to be failing in unison across all their product lines.  The cyclicality is also over a long period of time: The peak for the combined Sony/Nintendo was in 2008, five years ago.

There’s a strong debate in Japan about whether portable gaming consoles are failing and whether a household name like Nintendo should start releasing games for iOS/Android. Or simply put, is Nintendo doomed by not going mobile?  The Japanese gaming market is clearly different and seen in isolation, the picture is murkier than the analysis above. Globally though, one can feel that the peak of portable console gaming might very well be behind us —Japanese corporations are sometimes slow to adapt to global trends though.

DoCoMo’s executives seem more comfortable with the iPhone than previously believed. The company has told its Japanese handset manufacturers, mainly Sharp, that it expects the iPhone to take up to 40% of all new contracts when it gets introduced, according to Nikkei (in Japanese, paywalled).

If that forecast holds, the iPhone might very well become the absolute dominant handset in Japan .

DoCoMo had hinted at wanting the iPhone not to surpass 30% of its sales, in order to maintain diversity. We’ll see how that goes and if it was not just a message to reassure Sharp, Fujitsu and co.

Interestingly, it would seem that DoCoMo will also carry the iPad . Which, after all, would only be logical.