A few weeks back, friend and fellow iPhone fan @namyhei asked me if I’d like to join her at the Softbank 30th Anniversary Open day, held last Sunday at their headquarters in Shiodome, Tokyo. The idea for the event came from a regular Softbank employee, whom a few months back had tweeted CEO Masayoshi Son (@masason) saying that she wanted Softbank to hold an Open Day, with guests provided with lunch in the company restaurant. Son-san, known for his active Twitter use and at times unconventional leadership, decided to make this a reality. Entry was to be limited to 1000 lucky twitter-lottery winners – of which we were two.

We didn’t really know what to expect, other than that there’d be some kind of Twitter themed talk, and that we’d get a free lunch in the cafe at Softbank HQ, overlooking Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay. Of course the hope was that there would also be an important announcement – it seemed like a bit too much trouble to go to for just some kind of glorified tweetup.

Four-legged mascot

Having arrived fashionably late so as to miss the morning filler-programs (iPhone app presentations featuring a lot of apps we’d seen before… and as we later learned, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son mingling with the guests >< ), we took our seats in the auditorium, ready for the Main Event.

Things got underway at 2pm, with the Softbank dog, Otoosan (the ‘father’ of the Softbank family as seen in commercials, and probably the most famous living dog in Japan), making his appearance on stage, led by Dante Carver, the New Yorker who plays the brother in the family. Aside from generating a lot of excitement amongst Otosan fans in the room, they also demonstrated how we should clap for the cameras, and encouraged us to make use of the free wifi network, which by this time was totally crippled as 2000 people tried to simultaneously tweet pictures of the four-legged star on stage.

Soon after, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son took to the stage, and round one commenced – a Twitter discussion with Twitter celebs @nobi, @knnKanda and @matsuyou. They all looked just like their avatars.

The conversations that followed were wonderful, with all speakers telling personal stories of how Twitter had affected their lives – stories that the majority of people in the audience (including us) could relate to, having experienced similar situations themselves.

Twitter guests

The event organisers had also arranged for several of Son’s followers to attend and tell their stories. The first was a 16 year old boy from Kyushu – one of the very few people whom the CEO follows. Son explained his reason for this: many years ago, he’d been a school boy in the same area, and he wanted to get a glympse into his past life, and to see how things had changed. The boy was completely unfazed by being in the spotlight, and gave a memorable little speech, which almost brought tears to our eyes!

Following that was a woman who’d made a cookie that looked just like an iPhone – there had been some back and forth between her and Son after she’d sent him a picture of it via Twitter; this then led to her presenting Son with his very own – he was delighted! (see 20:30 in the video above)

The final guest was a Korean follower of Son’s, who used Google Translate to read his tweets – an example of the ‘borderless’ nature of Twitter.

Free in-home Femto-cell access points

Son used the opportunity to address the most common criticism that he receives – poor coverage. He noted that they had inherited a pretty poor network from vodafone, and that they were only 1% behind the other major mobile providers with 98% coverage (not that you’d think so as a user!). However, they weren’t being complacent, and 2010 would see a large increase in the number of transmitters. But he went further than that, announcing free Femto-cell access points (mobile phone transmitter) & dedicated ADSL line in homes where their signal didn’t reach (see 48:30). Furthermore, they’d provide free wifi routers to restaurants, bars etc for use by customers with Softbank handsets.

HTC Desire

As covered in this earlier article, Son went on to announce the HTC Desire running Android 2.1, making sure to point out just how superior it was to models available on other networks.

The 81yr old politician who stole the show

Next up on stage was someone we weren’t expecting at all – the 81 year old politician Koichi Hamada, (@555hamako), who with over 133,000 followers has become something of a Twitter Celebrity. In an inspired PR move, a Softbank counter was wheeled on, staffed by the girl who appeared alongside SMAP in a recent commercial. It was pretty comical watching Hamada read through the terms of the White Plan (Softbank’s standard phone plan), before signing it, and being handed his first iPhone (see 1:00:00).

Hamada was not one to be pushed around though, and when it came time for him to leave the stage, he remained where he was, leaning on his cane, until finally allowed to sing a traditional Japanese song from the enka genre! (1:20:00).

Softbank & Ustream Partnership

The final announcement for the day was that of three brand new Ustream studios for free, public use. The first opened that day at Softbank HQ (where DJ Taro and Sascha were keeping things rolling – the other two will be opening soon in the Softbank Shibuya branch and Shidax Building [English press release]).

In the final section of the presentation, Son reappeared dressed in period costume in reference to Sakamoto Ryoma, the drama about whom Son is a big fan of. There followed more discussion, and a prize giveaway – although we skipped that in order to get our free lunch before the rush.

The party continued in the restaurant with DJ Taro and Sascha presenting, interviewing and on the decks for some time. Being a Ustream fan I was entranced by the bank of monitors used to mix and output the final stream – this is something I have to try myself!

Heading home at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think about what a great PR event it had been. I’d been bribed with a free lunch overlooking Tokyo Bay & both a chocolate and cuddly-toy version of Otosan, I’d been enchanted by the charisma and ‘normalness’ of the richest man in Japan, I’d been starstruck by a bunch of Twitter celebs, entertained by an enka-singing politician, and entertained by two of Tokyo’s best-known DJs.

The Softbank Open Day shifted my attitude towards the company to a certain extent. I feel more inclined to forgive them their faults (crap coverage, poor in-store customer service), and instead see them as a company breaking the typical Japanese mould and doing things in a more open, human way.

Son san is now at the core of this image I have of the company (as opposed to the queue at my local branch). By holding imaginative, original and entertaining events such as this (and then going on to give memorable live-streamed speeches such as this one to new employees) I think Son stands a good chance of keeping my business for life. And based on how much my phone bill is each month, that’s something worth fighting for!