I can’t remember where I heard this from, but I remember that someone once claimed that Japanese cellphones were 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. In some ways that’s actually true. If you consider the average cellphone held by the Japanese person and then compare it to something someone in Canada holds, then yes it’s actually true. On the other hand, in the business smartphone market Japanese phones don’t seem to be holding a particular edge, they are about on par with the top of the line with Windows Mobile Phones and Blackberries. In any case, I just bought myself a lovely little Japanese consumer cellphone (Sharp SH-03A) and a full contract so I could see what the fuss was all about. Read on to find out more!
I don’t know where this myth propagated from, but Japan DOES have GSM. They’re marketed under weird names though, e.g. NTT Docomo’s 3G GSM service is known as FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access). So yes you can use a GSM tri-band phone in Japan. Most Japanese cellphones are also GSM capable, for use overseas (roaming). In fact, if you’re from Canada, Rogers’ roaming partner in Japan is Softbank Mobile. My N82 would have worked here too, had I remembered to bring my darned AC adapter….
There are four carriers in Japan, three of which are actual contenders. As opposed to Canada, where there are four companies across Canada, and one of which is a real telecommunications company. The three in Japan in order of number of total subscribers: NTT Docomo, Au by KDDI (Yes that’s their actual name), and Softbank Mobile. Willcom is a bit of an outlyer dedicated to eternal provision of basic mail and voice communication, and they use a seperate network from the big three. Of the big three Au by KDDI is a CDMA provider, so beware.
Rental cellphones are in fact available from the airport from all three of the big carriers, but I believe only Softbank is offering prepaid SIM cards these days. I think you can use international proof of identity for these. However, rental is charged independently of usage, so you can rack up quite a bill. The estimated cost of renting a phone and having it active all the time for a whole month. (You can set it to deactivate on certain days to lower the cost) is approximately 20,000 yen not including usage. See why I chose to buy one instead?
A couple of tips when buying a cellphone:
1. Grab the info and read it SLOWLY. Unfortunately, none of the big three currently have brochures in any language other than Japanese. They translate their information pamphlets (which are fairly substantialy, Docomo’s has over 100 pages) at a ever so slow rate, that usually when the translation comes out the plans have already changed. Doh!
2. Phone Carrier Locking. In foreign countries, certain types of phones are usually locked to a particular carrier. E.g. Iphone is locked to AT&T in the US and Rogers in Canada. Japanese carriers take things a little further, they physically seem to participate in the development of the phones to the point where the phones are rebranded to their carrier. For example, my phone is technically a Sharp SH-03A, but it is actually known as the NTT Docomo SH-03A. This means that the phones are completely STANDARDIZED, down to how every phone in the docomo series has the same USB/earphone/charger connector. Every phone within a particular level also has a nearly identical feature set, leaving choice to personal preference of looks. Unfortunately, this also means that phones are locked to carriers for their entire life time, with feature sets locked even if you attempt to hack the phone.
3. Different stores from the same carrier have different prices. I was blown away by this. In every country, I’ve lived in up until this point, all stores from a particular carrier had the same prices for their products. Not so in Japan. The difference can be up to 10,000yen. This includes prices for accessories (memory cards, chargers, and the like). Certain stores also offer specific benefits not available at other stores. For example, if you visit the Nagoya NTT Docomo store, you can add your phone purchase to your Bic Camera point card :O. The docomo website doesn’t list prices, so shop around.
4. Everything is sold seperately, apart from the battery. When you purchase the cellphone, all it comes with is the main unit, battery, and instruction manual. That’s it. Everything else: microSD card, CHARGER, USB connector, headphone adapter, etc. is sold separately. They’re usually not overly expensive even if you purchase from the carrier. The added benefit of purchasing from the carrier is that it is guaranteed to work. Some third party accessories, particularly USB connectors do not work properly with phones.
5. You need ID to purchase a phone. Anyone who is purchasing a phone or applying for a contract needs proof of identity. The catch? The proof of identity has to be issued by the Japanese government . This means.. for us foreigners that literally means that the Foreigner Registration card is your only choice. It’s a pain in the neck.
So why am I so excited about my phone? Ha!
Let’s start with the stuff that it can do, that I’ve seen elsewhere.
- Camera, but this is the first phone I’ve seen with a pretty decent 8 megapixel camera. I think it takes far better pictures than the N82, but obviously it is a piece of garbage compared to a dedicated DSLR. In any case, this will come in handy when I don’t feel like carrying the big DSLR with me. It also has a lot of tweakable options. Can you tell which one is the cellphone and which one is the DSLR? I hope you can.
- GPS Navi. It comes with Google Maps and a far better Java based Map appli that allows finding addresses based on phone numbers, keywords, etc. It can also help you automatically phone the place if you’re still lost even with a GPS (Trust me, it happens in Japan).
- E-mail. In Japan, SMS and MMS is pretty much dead. Almost everything goes through email, and attachments. You get your own email address upon signing up, though data charges may apply if you’re sending large attachements. Speaking of which, I don’t know of that many phones that can send proper attachments and open them when received.
- 3G HSDPA Internet access. Super fast high speed internet everywhere. I have yet to run into a dreaded no signal message even inside an elevator or deep in the metro.
- Multi-touch screen. If you fold the top of the phone onto itself as seen in the pic above, it functions nearly identical to the Iphone. If you unfold it, it turns back into a conventional clamshell phone.
There’s more but what’s the fun of talking about stuff that already exists elsewhere. Here are some features that I’ve NEVER seen anywhere else.
- Oneseg tuner. Ability to watch TV, record TV, review TV schedules, etc. O and here’s the killer one. Ability to schedule your phone so that it records TV for you, while it’s on Standby.
- Optical Character recognition. Too lazy to enter a business card into your phonebook? Don’t worry, just take a pic and the phone does it all for you. I’ve tried it and it actually works… it’s not just an ad.
- Manga reader! Wide screen adapted manga reader means you can read manga at ease on the relatively large 3 inch screen.
- DCMX chip. Once set up, you can swipe your phone at an IC terminal to pay for things like McDonald’s, Japan Rail tickets, Vending machines, and any other shop that supports IC terminals. The cost shows up on your monthly bill.
- Complete I-Mode Integration. The phone is always retrieving something for you from the i mode entertainment service. It could be a live ticker, that it displays on the front screen (it’s off in my photo). Or you can combine it with the i-concierge service that places a mascot on your desktop and reminds you of not your own schedule, but of public schedules such as release dates for Anime, Figures, tickets for concerts, album release dates. I think that’s pretty impressive, it’s saved me more than once by reminding me that I was going to miss the train if I didn’t leave the house immediately.
- Ability to calculate optimal transfers for trains, buses, and subway. In most places, this wouldn’t mean a thing. However, in Japan when you have normal, express, limited express, and super express trains running on the same track, but stopping at different stops. Knowing when to transfer from normal to express, or express to super express is a huge time saver. It also can reorient your trip for the least cost or fewest transfers.
- Kisekae. Literally just a desktop changer. I know that changing themes exists already, but how about a theme changing service that can also fundamentally alter menu layouts, button tones, etc. It literally transforms your phone into an entirely new phone. I know it sounds kind of lame, but it’s actually quite amazing.
- Manner Mode for use in trains. It comes with the crazzzzy feature where it allows you to toggle your phone screen between wide angle and narrow angle modes. Stops people from reading over your shoulder when mailing others. Not that great for me, but I can definitely see how this could be useful.
- O and how many consumer phones do you know that can do this (Yes the iphone is one of them, but this does so many things the iphone cannot do)? I might actually discard my iPod touch and use this exclusively.
Yikes this post turned out to be overly long. Keep the comments coming! I think I might have to take my laptop back to the Apple shop again tomorrow. For some reason, ever since the “repair” my apps have all be crashing with the same error. OS X comes up with the OSX needs to reboot screen, and Windows keeps blue screening at random. I’m at my wits end trying to troubleshoot through software, so MAYBE it’s a hardware problem.