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Handheld Technology

Japan's Unquenchable Thirst for All Things New

Jay Alabaster’s June 21 article took an interesting look at the surprisingly good sales of Sony’s Xperia A compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S4 in Japan. What makes this story even more interesting is the fact that the Xperia A became available to Japanese consumers on 17 May, just over three months after Sony’s previous smartphone, the Xperia Z, was released on 9 February.

Both phones were sold by Japan’s largest carrier Docomo, which is owned by the nation’s biggest telecommunications company, NTT. Docomo subscribers account for 43%  of all mobile phone users in Japan so the way that the company sets up its marketing, sales and distribution strategies have an effect not only on the other carriers in Japan but also on the fate of giant, well-known Japanese electronics manufacturers like Sony, Sharp, Panasonic and Toshiba.

Docomo has taken the bold step of being the only one of the three major carriers in Japan not to sell any Apple products. Like the Xperia A, the Xperia Z was very popular in Japan too, with around one million units being sold, so the question is: why did Sony decide to put some much time and research energy into releasing a new model when the existing one was selling so well?

The answer that many experts give is that the Japanese have an unquenchable thirst for new products. In this day and age of fast paced, ever-changing technology it may seem that people all over the world desire the latest gadgets for both work and leisure but any careful examination of the Japanese market will reveal that for many people in Japan, having new things to buy and show off to other people has become an obsession.

On the surface, this desire for new, updated things might appear to be a positive sign for Japan’s struggling electronics manufacturers, but some critics have started to notice that excess expenditure on the research and development of new products, as opposed to focusing on producing high-quality, long-selling products, is hurting the industry much more than it is helping it.

Virtually up until the day that the iPhone went on sale in Japan in 2008, when, compared to Europe and North America, mobile phones that were produced by Japanese companies for the domestic market looked like they were from another planet. Features that were found on Japanese handsets, like large screens, photo and video capacity, water resistance, TV reception, email and internet were all at least two years ahead of the handset models available outside the country.

That all changed when Apple’s iPhone came out here and went on to easily become the most popular selling smartphone, leaving all domestic companies to play catch-up. Just as a quick illustration of the seemingly endless choices that consumers are offered in Japan, on the Docomo carrier, currently there are four different smartphone models on offer from Sharp alone. On Sharp’s US website, however, it only has one smartphone listed and it looks like something that was available in Japan around four years ago.

Another slightly more subtle indicator of just how much Japanese consumers are, depending on your point of view, drowned in, or blessed with, choice, is the large number of monthly magazines which are dedicated to telling people (especially men) about new products. Some of the big ones are Good Press, GetNavi, Best Gear and Monoqlo to name just a few. Recently there have been lots of comparisons between Japanese brands and Apple/Samsung, and if the smartphone market is a kind of litmus test, then perhaps brands like Sony should take more notice of what the market leaders are doing, releasing a new handset roughly once a year.

There are various points of view as to why the Japanese are obsessed with new things and what effect this obsession has on Japanese companies. In a 2005 research paper by Professor Satoshi Shimuzu of Meiji University in Tokyo, he outlines the way Japanese companies make use of this fanaticism. The Professor notes that there is more market-research-specific data mining software sold in Japan than in any other country and both Japanese and foreign companies see this as an indicator that the nation should be used as a testing ground for products before they are launched overseas.

On 14 July this year, one user of Yahoo Japan’s chiebukuro site (the equivalent of Yahoo Answers) proposed a rather amusing theory; writing that the reason the Japanese love new things is that during the Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries, due to the lack of refrigeration, fish had to always be fresh. This love of fresh fish has simply continued into modern times and been indelibly absorbed into the Japanese psyche, whether natives are consuming tuna or smartphones.

Asking a couple of university students about why they always needed to have the newest products the response given was: “Japanese people are easily affected by what other people think, so if someone else has the latest smartphone, I feel like I have to have it too. If I don’t have the same things that people around me have, I start to worry. It is not just for my own satisfaction that I want new things but I want show what I have to other people.” 

 

Ben Olah is originally from Sydney but he has lived in Japan since he graduated from university. He says that, even after having lived there for many years, he never ceases to find Japan and its people to be a source of amazement.

 

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Ben Olah

Ben Olah is originally from Sydney but he has lived in Japan since he graduated from university and, even after living there for many years, he says he never ceases to find Japan and its people to be a source of amazement. Ben is passionate about innovation and transfixed by the way that technology is changing our society in ways that nothing before has even done. 

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