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.


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.


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.

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

  1. Please Japan realize not everyone is the same cookie cutter like way.
    Individuality, variety, differences

    Where are the next Einsteins, Edison’s, Da Vinci’s…they are out there but the society and system fails to bring them out!

    There’s this god forsaken wall somehow, good God knock that freakin wall down! That nail sticking out idea get rid of that idea too!
    Somehow freedom and open mindedness is just not there up to now…
    Education is just the bottom line, the education system is just a FAIL causing the Iphone to come from elsewhere simply.

  2. Gee this guy is quite pessmistic really and don’t agree with certain things he is saying. Those certain things that just pissed me off

    It’s a win or lose economy out there period! And it’s no excuse for him to be like ugh しょうがない bull, I hate that!
    Apple beat you because of your gutless rigid blind sighted 考え方 and just easily say oh well shouganai! And I blame this on the Japanese and yes even their education system for this.
    Education system treats everyone like machines, and fails to fully realize a person’s talent, abilities, possible genius, and creativity…It’s not an apples and oranges type of system sadly.
    It doesn’t have to be this way but they have really created their own hell basically.

    Use your head brother, it’s the best thing that a human being’s got!

    We only use 10% of ours brains
    Use it or lose it
    It’s called creativity, sure there’s the genius element, talent, and just using your imagination.

  3. @Kontra: Aren’t we talking about Japan here? Besides, who knows what the author meant by “strong sales”? It’s not like he actually made an attempt to back up that rather vague statement with data. Furthermore, remember that piece of news you quoted a few months back about the iPhone’s fantastic success in Japan? Yep, “strong sales” could dissipate quickly.

    The iPhone is not a failure in North America; however, it is neither the huge success worldwide that Apple fanatics’ propaganda claims it is.

  4. Intosh: “So much for that ‘advanced and revolutionary’ phone.”

    So you think the iPhone, which the WSJ article you link to starts out by characterizing as:

    “Two months after its launch, the latest version of Apple Inc.’s iPhone is showing strong sales around the world…”

    is a failure?

  5. Excellent comments from William and Jim.

    The Nintendo WII is another exception to the Japanese electronics makers’ habit of overloading their products with features. While Xbox and PS3 added more and more features, the WII offered a simple offering and interface. Now they get to make out like bandits (Crash Bandicoots?) on the accessories for Fit, Sports, Rock Band, etc.

    Another reason Apple could do this in a way another Japanese electronics company could not, is because Apple has an integrated product line that is already highly regarded. So iTunes, iPod touch, MacBooks, and iMacs get to complement the product. I cannot think of a company headquartered in Asia – including Sony, Samsung, LG, Matsushita, Toshiba – where the sun can rise and shine on complementary products like this.

  6. Jim: “I’ve had my docomo phone for several years now, hate it…”

    Would you say that very sentiment is a common one in Japan? And do you think the iPhone 3G will do well there?

  7. I’ve had my docomo phone for several years now, hate it, and have never really learned to use it for anything other than calling or text-messaging. The phone itself is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, but the instruction book is the size of a large novel (academic-size paperback, not pocket-size, pp i thru xiii, followed by pp 1-493).

    Even though I’m grateful for the English screen instructions, the arcane series of steps required to do anything other than make a simple phone call is tremendously discouraging. Life is too short for that. I’ve decided to hold off for one more generation before getting into the Japanese version of the iPhone, but I’m definitely looking forward to the day when I can jettison the docomo. The sooner the better.

  8. Japanese are technical amalgamators NOT visionaries. Steve’s vision is changing the world. Japan will follow late and make technically useable products unlike Microsoft who copies late and badly and never had a creative thought in it’s life.

  9. Luis Alejandro Masanti: “It is neither ‘an [any] American [company] invention'”

    Luis, as you may know, at the entrance of Apple headquarters there are three flags flying: Apple, U.S. and the Republic of California. :-)

  10. william: “Until they change their mindset, they will not get back to ‘less is more'”

    My understanding is that the iPod, the epitome of less is more, has been quite successful in Japan. Has it taught the Japanese companies there anything?

  11. I have to echo a lot of that statements in the comments by saying this has little to do with nationality, and more to do with only a few companies ever taking this approach.

    I do think a japanese company could create something like this (though maybe not a cell manufacturer).

    Nintendo’s the closest analog to Apple that I can think of anywhere. The wii and ds both show an approach that is very similar to Apple’s iPod and iPhone lines. These two companies are remarkably insightful when it comes to giving the market a product, features or smooth implementation that it (the market) doesn’t even know it wants yet.

  12. I lived in Japan for a few years so I have some knowledge of these things. I’m not expert at all but I think I understand this. Here’s what I think he means:

    The iPhone and Apple in general showe a kind of Japanese or perhaps Asian approach to making products for their customers. In all kinds of Japanese consumer products you see a kind of thoughtfulness in the little details. This includes the packaging and every way the product is presented to you, and how it works. Some features may even be left out because it would negatively affect how the whole thing works for you. This is what is meant by “less is more.”

    Japanese electronics manufacturers seem to have taken a different path than the Japanese manufacturers of other things. Maybe this is because they were long accused of simply copying things invented elsewhere. In any event, they seem to need to demonstrate their technical ability by including every conceivable feature, often making the thing complicated and hard to use. The features may be great, but if they are hard or unpleasant to use, you don’t use them and they may as well not be there. This is an example of “more is less.” Until they change their mindset, they will not get back to “less is more” and making electronics with more thought about how they will be used.

    (My mention of “less is more” recalls a favorite quote from the television show Fraiser: “If less is more, just think about how much more “more” would be!”)

  13. As you pointed out in “iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline”, I think that not only “the iPhone is πnot a Japanese invention”.
    It is neither “an [any] American [company] invention” nor “an [any] European [company] invention”.
    There is a very small number of companies –American, European, Japanese, etc.– that knows that “taking risks is the way of doing business… changing the world”. Apple is one of those… OK, being American is [almost] just an accident in this globallized world.

  14. I read that AP article too. There was a lot that rang true, even for other countries than Japan. Japan is probably the most consumer-savvy country in the world. The challenges are daunting but the rewards can be that much greater for anyone who succeeds. The problems large companies face in their product development, really troubles me. Apple is unique in this respect and have much to teach the world. And the troubles seem only to grow as we are adding more technology. New generations of software developers learn nothing from old ones, they just keep doing the same mistakes and adding a few new ones.

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