There’s been endless yakking about cultural differences between Japanese and US keitai users. Which features appeal to which culture? Is wireless Internet important for Americans? Those Japanese will pay for data, won’t they? Yada yada yada… We’ve heard comments ad nauseam about the differences between Americans, Europeans, and Japanese when it comes to choosing cell phones. While we have long disbelieved the odious stereotypes — like “Japanese want to pay for Internet access” and “American thumbs are too big for those tiny i-mode keypads” — we have to admit, we weren’t sure what to believe ourselves. WWJ gets to the heart of the matter with a visit to Cellular Plaza Mims, a unique cell phone shop serving large numbers of true-blue Americans here in Japan.
Comments from Wireless Watch Japan Editor-in-Chief Daniel Scuka:
Our request for an expedition to Seattle, NYC, and London to conduct a little comparative field research was, sadly, quashed by our evil, penny-pinching finance department (lead videocam guru Larry claims I shouldn’t have listed “Claridge’s” as our London hotel on the travel petty cash application…).
So we were forced to confine our field research to domestic climes, and choose instead to visit a cell phone shop located just outside the front gate of Yokota US Air Force Base. The clientele is decidedly skewed towards Americans, who arrive for their three- or four-year Japan tour with family members in tow and packing along many (all?) of the same cultural assumptions about keitais that hold sway back home. We figured that the fluently bilingual sales staff at Cellular Plaza Mims would have some interesting observations on the differences between what their US customers ask for versus what attracts the Japanese. Well, we struck pay dirt, and if Mims’ customer base is any example, this programme offers interesting insights into how Internet-capable cell phones will fare in the US.
To be fair, our slightly tongue-in-cheek look at client cultural differences fails to take into account the deep and abiding structural differences between the US and Japanese markets, so viewers can make up their own mind as to the results. Maybe Japanese prefer i-mode-enabled handsets because that’s what the market offers them, whereas Americas prefer low-cost, simpler models because that’s what the likes of Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T Wireless think they want.
But let’s dispel one wide (mis)presumption right off the bat: the Internet penetration rate in Japan was **not** much lower than elsewhere when i-mode took off in the spring of 1999. In fact, it was about the same as in Germany, where SMS was just getting started. So, no, the success of i-mode in Japan wasn’t due to any lack of PC Net access (and note that the mobile Web continues to be successful despite ubiquitous DSL access at some of the world’s cheapest rates). The mobile webs here were and continue to be successful because of great content, a simple, convenient billing model, and very cool handsets.