i-mode creator: iPhone “cannot be produced by Japanese manufacturers. Never.”

Whenever it’s pointed out how the iPhone advanced the status of smartphones, there are plenty of naysayers pointing out the fact that in advanced markets like Japan, where more people access the Internet through cellphones than PCs, the iPhone would be laughed at.

Does the iPhone have what it takes?

On a feature-by-feature basis, this is indeed true: Japanese phones offer over-the-counter payments, train passes, 2D barcode readers, karaoke players, live digital TV, voice-to-text translation and many other services delivered at high speeds in a market worth over $100 billion in 2007.

Why, then, should the iPhone currently having teething pains with 3G in the U.S. be expected to do well in Japan? Many believe it won’t:

The mobile phone market in Japan is very unique…The expectations are different, so obviously the available features are too along with the culture entirely. Apple is targeting consumers first which is smart, but that has been the case in Japan and the iPhone is just not appealing. “It just won’t work.”

The iPhone actually did very well at its introduction in Japan, garnering more than half of the new activations in July. This led iPhone carrier SoftBank to announce: “We believe our large net growth was an iPhone effect,” and its competitor KDDI to admit: “We are accepting the fact, considering that our handsets weren’t attractive enough.” How the iPhone will do in Japan in the long run, however, is still a question.

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Is it possible that the iPhone is considered the “Invention Of the Year” in the U.S., but will go unappreciated in Japan? Is the world’s most advanced mobile market so different than the one in the U.S. that the iPhone advances are rendered irrelevant?

The father of i-mode

There’s perhaps nobody else better qualified to answer that than Takeshi Natsuno who’s considered the father of the then-groundbreaking i-mode service that linked Japanese cellphones to the Internet almost a decade ago.

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As described in an interview in Designing Interactions:

After studying political science and economics at Waseda University, Takeshi Natsuno went to the United States to study at the Wharton Business School in the University of Pennsylvania. “I learned a lot at Wharton about how to apply the Internet to the real business. If I didn’t go to Wharton, you don’t see i-mode right now! I learned a lot about the Internet even before the launch of Yahoo, even before the commercialization of Netscape. What is the business potential of the Internet itself? I don’t care about the technological possibility, but more about the business opportunities.” When he graduated and returned home, he realized that not many people in Japan understood how to make the Internet useful for real business. This provided an irresistible temptation for his entrepreneurial instincts, so in 1996 he left Tokyo Gas to start up a new Internet business. His idea was to offer free Internet access funded by advertising. This was before Internet service providers (ISPs) became commonplace, and it was too early to succeed, making him willing to try the i-mode experiment. In only five years he grew the i-mode service to thirty two million subscribers.

Why iPhone didn’t come out of Japan

The same Natsuno, however, recently quit the largest Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo, citing “disenchantment with this nation’s phone industry, which he said was dominated by stodgy conservatives.”

“This is a great device,” he said, affectionately touching a black iPhone 3G during an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “This kind of device cannot be produced by Japanese manufacturers. Never.”

Sporting a pale jacket, no tie and long hair, Natsuno scoffed at the stereotype Japanese businessman as boring in their obsession with technology for technology’s sake.

“They have to take a risk,” said Natsuno. “To do that, clear direction, clear vision, clear leadership are necessary.”

That’s a fairly stark and foreboding conclusion to reach for someone with such unique insight into both the American and the Japanese markets and cultures.

While I have explored how design is risk management in iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline and what factors have to come together seamlessly for great design to emerge in Who can beat iPhone 2.0?, I’d like to hear why you think the iPhone is not a Japanese invention.