Japan constitutes a large market for smartphones. Traditionally, Japanese mobile phones had been considered years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of innovation. The first smartphone to be massively adopted within a country had e-mail capabilities and was introduced as early as 1999 by NTT Docomo Inc. in Japan. More features followed shortly after, such as 3G networks in 2001, and the world’s first wallet phone in 2004. The country even launched its own high-speed cellular data service, called i-Mode, well before other regions. Despite widespread acknowledgment and praise throughout the world, Japanese mobile phones were never fully able to gain a foothold in overseas markets. Instead, the industry turned extremely inwards, a tendency that has been called “Galápagos syndrome” due to the high specialization achieved by focusing on a single market. However, the rapid domestic dissemination of mobile phones was more than profitable and gave Japanese phone makers little incentive to venture into overseas markets.

Apple’s iPhone has become the dominant brand

Reversely, as Japanese consumers are highly discerning when it comes to mobile phones and foreign brands, foreign phone makers have struggled to enter the market in Japan. In 2008, just when the smartphone business climate started to change, with a shrinking demand due to a recession and an aging society, the first Apple iPhone hit the Japanese market. Lacking some features essential for Japanese consumers, such as infrared ports, a QR code scanner, TV tuner, and emojis, it initially achieved rather disappointing sales results compared to other countries, as consumers did not see the benefits of using iPhones instead of domestic phones. However, this changed in the following years.

Smartphone retail in Japan is dominated by three major mobile carriers : NTT Docomo, au by KDDI, and SoftBank . SoftBank played a big part in Apple’s success by obtaining exclusive rights to the iPhone for three years and running smart marketing campaigns. In addition, Apple approached Japan by partly adjusting its products to the Japanese market. With NTT Docomo and au by KDDI now also selling iPhones, the nation’s mobile phone sector has become one of the largest markets for Apple. A breakdown of the domestic smartphone shipment volume by vendor shows that Apple is clearly the leading brand ahead of domestic vendors like Sharp and Kyocera. iPhones also regularly dominate the ranking of the most sold smartphone models in Japan. More recently, Chinese smartphone makers, such as Huawei and Oppo Electronics, have also established themselves as key players and increased the competition.

Recent developments

In 2021, the smartphone penetration rate among households in Japan was close to 89 percent. The average time people spend on mobile internet use has also increased in recent years and offers business opportunities for various related industries, such as e-commerce and mobile gaming . In March 2020, 5G networks were introduced for commercial use in Japan. All three traditional mobile carriers, NTT Docomo, au, and SoftBank, began providing 5G network services in stages, starting from limited urban areas. Rakuten Mobile, which became the country’s fourth proper mobile carrier in 2020, started rolling out its 5G service in September of that year. The postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, which were carried out in the summer of 2021, provided an important impetus for mobile carriers to fully implement 5G services promptly.


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