携帯電話 – Japanese Cellphones are serious business

13 03 2009

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!


Yes, I'm too lazy to take a picture of my own cellphone.

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 :P.  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!dsc_0356-2

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.dvc00002-2dsc_0355-2
  • 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.

Anyone else watching Chrome Shelled Regios? It's rather good.

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.

Anyways later!



18 responses

13 03 2009

Makes Canadian/US phones look like a piece of cheese. That’s one awesome phone. Hopefully when you come back to Canada, you can switch your SIM card w/ the phone’s card. Although many functions will stop working. Well, have a great rest of trip and see you back in Fall09.

13 03 2009

The largest reason behind this is that in East Asia there is actually a market for non-carrier-locked phones. Your experience with buying the phone and getting… Just. A. Phone. seems to echo this. Since the markets are separate, phone manufacturers have to cater to consumers as much as carriers do, which means manufacturers keep trying to one up each other.

Over here, the only way to get a phone on a network is to buy the phone from the network operators. Since it’s in their best interest to not let you use a lot of data (because it’ll cause their network to fall over) they strictly regulate what can and cannot be done with each phone.

I actually work for (arguably) a phone manufacturer and can tell you that carriers have absolute control. Phones that I have a part in are sold to carriers. They are our consumers.

Now, the smartphone market is slightly different. Your blackberries and windows mobiles are semi-marketed directly to business people because they have the wherewithal to have the phone purchased for them. Once you have a name, like ‘BlackBerry’, and you, as a person, know what that entails (email, media, phone, voice dialing, business tools integration, local intranet access, etc, etc), then all carriers that carry the phone can’t just cut out those features without cutting out their consumer base as well.

Of course there are other issues. Density is low here (we actually have *suburbs* of *fully-detached* *one-family* dwellings. That’s crazy-spread-out) so coverage is an issue. Having a large part of your network being used at 13% doesn’t induce you to upgrade, even if the most tasked towers fall over from 8:30-9:30, 11:30-1:30, and 4:30-6:00.

But, cellphones are terrible wherever you go. You’ve lucked out in that your themeswitcher can do a total conversion on your phone, but I’m a software dev. I like the ability (even if I never use it) to change the inherent behaviour of my stuff to do exactly what I want. If I wanted my phone to be aware of my location and my schedule so that it could determine I was on a train that would not make a connection to the last bus that would get me to a meeting on time and *send a notice* to the other attendees of that meeting letting them know I’ll be late… if I wanted my phone to do that, I can’t do it. Maybe on an Android platform I could, maybe with my developer-unlocked phone I could… but not on any feature phone I’ve ever seen.

…yeesh. I guess I ranted a bit. Sorry!

14 03 2009
Yuki Phnx

wooow. the most convenient thing for me on this phone would be email and the DCMX chip. i love having my credit card on my phone, so i don’t worry about losing my credit card.

14 03 2009

Sometimes I feel our phones a so weak…
I wish phones here are the same as Japan…
I say Japan phones are some convenient in so many ways…internet everywhere and TV…so good!!!!!!
Using the phone to calculate trains is just insane…here…it’s pointless…
Also regarding the DSLR vs the camera on your phone…The second one is the DSLR and the first one is the camera on your phone.
Still, that is pretty nice for a phone I say…just wow!!!!!

15 03 2009

@robostrike: Thanks man 😀 Yea it really sucks that I can only get everything out of this phone when I’m in Japan. Well when I have it in Canada, at least it’ll still look exotic. 😛 I can truly mean it when I say you probably won’t be able to buy this yourself.

@Chris: I didn’t realize the situation in Canada was that dire. The scene in Japan is totally different, and seems much more conducive to advancement. Because the market for subscribers has almost been entirely saturated in Japan, it truly takes exceptional features to win people over to any particular network. That’s why these phones are so packed with features even as a basic feature phone. In Canada, Bell doesn’t seem to care about it’s business and is content with staying in last place, Telus has the most horrid phone offerings I’ve ever seen, and Fido who had a chance is owned by the number 1 company. That leaves us with a virtual monopoly that is Rogers’ and they don’t give a damn about actually providing the best value to customers, just making more money, since no one will take subscribers from them.

@Yuki Phnx: The DCMX chip sure is convenient. It just takes a little effort to set it up. Probably took me more effort because of the language barrier though. It’s not quite a credit card, but I guess it does fulfill an identical function.

@Rin: Alas, until the government does something about Rogers, Canada will just fall farther and farther behind on mobile communications. Japan is so ridiculously far ahead of the everyone else. You got the pics right too :P. The camera phone is probably good enough for use as a secondary point and shoot!

16 03 2009

日本ケータイがほうしです! 😀

21 03 2009

i would upgrade my phone in an instant if we just had something like the dcmx thing -_- (currently using my terribly old phone… not even color ^^;;)

22 03 2009

@JM: 日本の携帯すごいだよね・・・ 外国で買えない、本とに残念だ

@Meronpan: how are you able to use a phone that old!!! I was counting with my friends the other day. I`ve apparently switched phones 6 times in the last 5 years somehow….

Nokia 8850 -> Sony Ericsson K750i -> Sony Ericsson W850i -> Sony Ericsson K850i -> Nokia N82 -> Sharp SH-03A

7 04 2009

FYI, our phone will be usable back in Canada. Coincidentally I have the exact same phone as you, an SH-03A. With a hypersim, you can use Keitais in Canada. The catch is that you have to be on Rogers Wireless 3G, and that you lose a lot of features since the unlock hasn’t been perfected. Particularly anything involving iMode/internet/data transfer. Basically you keep the media features, talking, and SMS >.>”

7 04 2009


I do have a Roger’s contract, but it is simply their GSM voice only service. I haven’t signed up with any of their 3G or GPRS stuff simply because they cost an arm and a leg in Canada. I never expected to use i-mode/internet/data transfer in Canada though, that would simply be too good to be true :P. I will enjoy my phone as much as I can while I’m in Japan :D.

7 04 2009

Well, you just have to be on a Rogers plan and in an area that gets 3G reception. Any major city in Canada. You don’t have to pay extra to get 3G reception <.<” People are working on the unlocks still though. If you look into the overseas keitai scene, theres a lot of interesting stuff.

7 06 2009

Wow, probably the most definitive guide of this phone on the net to date.
thankyou for that.
and for the info on Japanese phone carriers. Im hoping to go on exchange to japan next year and i was wondering about that.

hah, the phone scene is just as dismal here in Australia. All the companys over charge and the data plans are terrible all but for one company called 3. thats if you can get reception anywhere in their small small network. otherwise your stuck with Telstra, the government owned one. simply because they are the only ones you can get reception with everywhere, and they have the crappyest phones and overcharge on plans like a wounded bull.

Good to see the regios! XD im enjoying it also!

good luck in japan :3

8 06 2009

hihi i was wondering if this phone had good reception in Canada?
I am planning on buying SH-03A, but I heard the reception for japan phones are bad in Canada.

8 06 2009

hihi i was wondering how the reception for this phone is in Canada?
I am planning on getting this phone, and I wanna know if this phone has stable reception, and does this phone work well with Fido?

8 06 2009

Sorry, I can’t answer that question. I haven’t actually taken this phone back to Canada to use yet. I’m still staying in Japan.

Fido and Rogers are essentially the same company at this point, so I’m not surprised if the phone works on both Rogers and Fido.

13 11 2009

well, i came across a problem with the touch screen as it does not work when i use the touch screen…..do you know whats wrong with it?

21 02 2010

they should just stop making phones here and japan should provide us all. 😐

2 02 2011

how can i open line my sh – 03a im here in philippines , can u help me.

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