August 20, 2008, 8:18 PM — Japan has always been a fertile ground for gadgets, many of them far surpassing anything available in North America or Europe in sophistication. I'll never forget the day when a family of Japanese tourists asked me to take their picture; I had to call the father over to explain to me how their camera, which was roughly the size of a credit card and had no obvious buttons, worked.
Conventional wisdom holds that Western gadgets just won't make it in Japan. Indeed, one Western writer thoughtfully summarizes for us a Japanese-language article on Japan's disdain for the iPhone. "59% of respondents had 'no intention to buy', and another 26% had 'no interest.' That left 2.5% who intend to buy, and another 13% who may think about it."
That report was from late July; it's interesting, then, there's been such a flurry of "Oh my gosh Japan hearts the iPhone!!!!" buzz this week. Japan's third-largest mobile service provider is the country's exclusive iPhone seller, and its sales have surged, with corresponding cancelled contracts from rivals. An ex exec at NTT DoCoMo, Japan's longstanding mobile phone leader, praised the iPhone, favorably comparing it to Japanese gadget icons like the Wii and Nintendo DS. Ars Technica speculates that the traditional Japanese iMode "walled garden" model for wireless Internet access, successful when handsets were incapable of real Web browsing, stifled innovation and is now being leapfrogged by the first really capable handheld Internet device. The Unofficial Apple Weblog even notes a boom in iPhone-related print magazines in Japan, which must indicate a certain popularity.
The question remains: Did that 85 percent with "no intention to buy" or "no interest" change their mind in the past few weeks? Or does even 15 percent of the Japanese mobile phone market translate to a lot of users and money? Hopefully the Japanese will not have the fiery relationship with their new phone that they've had with the iPod nano.