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Recently I visited Japan.  The last time I visited was in 2010.  Japan has always been known for it’s electronics and technology so I was looking forward to seeing how it’s changed in four years and how it differs from the U.S.  These are just my personal observations so they may not be indicative of actual trends or market share figures.



Akihabara has always been known as the place in Japan to go if you want to see a lot of gadgets and electronics. That hasn’t changed, but I noticed that places like Shibuya, Shinjuku and other larger districts are also good places to see lots of electronics.  Akihabara is still the place to go if you are looking for specialty toys or hobby products not sold in normal department stores.  Like 4 years ago the thing that stands out to me the most is that the large stores take up space vertically instead of horizontally like in the U.S.  Each floor in a building might contain a few departments from household good, sporting goods, computers, cell phones, toys and games.



The biggest change I noticed since 4 years ago is that while Windows PCs still take up the majority of store space there are more areas that sell Apple products.  In particular iPads and Macbooks.  Companies like NEC and Panasonic which are nearly non-existent in the U.S. have a lot of floor space.  There were also a surprising number of small full-featured notebooks that include DVD drives.  That surprised me since the trend in the U.S. has been toward smaller, thinner ultrabooks with no optical drive.


Cell Phones:

The biggest difference I noticed from 4 years ago is that smartphones have taken over.  4 years ago I was surprised that Japan did not have many smartphones and that most people still used flip phones.  The flip phones at that time were very advanced compared to the ones in the U.S.  They were probably closer to smartphones with large color screens than the dumbphones we imagine when we think of our old flip style cell phones and that might be one reason why they held on so long.  While there were still people using flip phones I think the majority of people I saw on subways and trains were using an Android or iPhone.  Apparently smartphones have not only taken over the phone market, but I noticed that not many people used handheld gaming devices like gameboys on the train anymore.  Most people were glued to their smartphone.  There were quite a lot of advertisements for mobile games on TV and on posters.  In Clash of Clans and Puzzles and Dragons are heavily marketed at the moment.  Android seems to have exploded in market share in Japan just like it has in the U.S.  Also like in the U.S. Windows Phones basically do not exist.  In Japan they aren’t even sold in stores.



The second most used device I saw on subways and trains were tablets.  Although most were iPads and Android tablets I saw quite a few with Windows tablets as well.  Almost all were 7”-8” tablets as opposed to 10” tablets.  It was mostly adults using the tablets, where in the U.S. I usually notice that kids carry around tablets just as much as adults.  In stores I would say that Android tablets take up the most floor space, but iPads and Windows tablets are also well represented.



In the U.S. arcades are fading away, but in Japan they are still everywhere.  After reading Tokyo Observations: Coin-op Card Games I was looking forward to checking out a few arcades.  4 years ago I did not remember seeing many of these games, but now there are a lot.  There are card based arcade games for Pokemon, Kamen Rider and other franchises I did not recognize, but by far the most popular arcade card game for kids at the moment is for a series called Yokai Watch.  Some arcades had lines for people waiting to play that game.  Japan also has a lot of sit down and shooting games where you have an actual steering wheel or gun to operate the game with.  The rest of the games were mainly crane based prize games.  There were not many traditional arcade games and perhaps that is one reason arcades still do well in Japan as they offer games that people can’t play at home.  I think that card based arcade games could do well in the U.S. given how popular card games like Magic and Pokemon have been.



I mentioned earlier that I didn’t see as many people playing with portable gaming devices as I did 4 years ago, however that doesn’t mean they don’t carry them around.  While in Japan I carried around my Nintendo 3DS and it has a feature to tag people as you pass them in the street.  In Japan within an hour would have 10 tags.  10 is the maximum you can get until you clear them out so I think that if I continually checked my tags during the day I would have been able to get a hundred tags.  In Hawaii I rarely get any tags.  Obviously people still carry around their gaming devices, but perhaps don’t bring them out in public as much as they used to.



WiFi access has changed a lot in 4 years.  4 years ago I could not catch many wifi signals in Japan, but during my recent trip every single place had some type of wifi access point.  Most of the time they were paid hotspots, but sometimes they were public.  In particular in addition to the airports, hotels, restaurants and shopping centers had open hotspots or secure hotspots for customers.  Still, if you need reliable mobile data you’ll probably want to look at rending a mobile hotspot just like in the U.S.


I wonder if what I observed in Japan is similar to what other people have observed?  Certainly my observations were skewed by the mainly touristy places I visited.  It was interesting to see how things have changed in just a few years and how mobile tech continues to grow and dominate our lives.  Looking forward it will be interesting to see if wearable tech changes our lives as much as cell phones and tablets.

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Comment by Douglas Ching on July 11, 2014 at 9:52am

@Chris & @Mika - That is interesting about clamshells and smartphones.  There were people using flip phones, but at least on the trains and subway there were a lot of iPhones and Android phones.  Perhaps it was the time or place that gave me that perception of higher smartphone usage.

@Daniel - I did see a vending machine like that, but didn't notice if it did the face recognition.  That is one thing I forgot to put in this post.  In Japan I noticed that they use a lot of LCD displays for vending machines, kiosks and signs.  I saw one in a shopping center that did face recognition.  It placed a snorkel on people's faces when they passed by and have bubble pop up on the display and fish swim by and avoid the people.  That was for a Sony exhibit.  Another was at the airport in front of a customs display and it put a hat or mask on people's faces.

@David - I didn't get to try any of the crane games, but judging by the low inventory of prizes in some of the games people must have some nice crane skills in Japan.

@Cameron - I didn't get to see a restaurant where I could use an iPad to order.  That would have been cool to try out.  I did see many restaurants using iPhones and Android phones for taking orders.

Comment by Cameron Souza on July 9, 2014 at 4:25pm

re: Tablets

A large number of restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka have their menus and an ordering system on tethered iPads.

Comment by David Chung on July 9, 2014 at 3:41pm

 The rest of the games were mainly crane based prize games.

SEGA UFO Catcher is the best! To me, that is the only winnable crane game and that's how I accumulated my Mamehiba plush collection.

Comment by Mika Leuck on July 9, 2014 at 3:38pm

@Chris Ota - Thats true. Many people have a clam phone and an iPhone or other iOS device. Three reasons I think the clam is still popular:

  1. Japanese clam phones are, and always have been, much more feature rich than clams in other countries. There is a long history of integration with payment systems and other external devices. 
  2. Some people, especially women, like the models that are smaller and lighter than iPhones.
  3. The Mobage social gaming platform has a lot of great flip phone games.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on July 9, 2014 at 3:22pm

Nice techie travel journal! In terms of Japanese tech, I'm always excited to see how close the vending machines have come to self awareness.

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Did you notice the vending machines in the airports and train stations that detect if a child is looking at them and then display a video reflection with a funny hat?

Comment by Mika Leuck on July 9, 2014 at 3:14pm

This post makes me want to head back to Tokyo soon! Its always fun wondering around Akihabara and checking out the latest gadgets and otaku culture.

Like 4 years ago the thing that stands out to me the most is that the large stores take up space vertically instead of horizontally like in the U.S.

That is how we stay skinny :-)


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