It’s easy to see how the iPhone changed the world 10 years ago — now pretty much every public place is packed with people peering into their palms in a way that would have been difficult to imagine before 2007. But as Steve Jobs pointed out during his famous introduction to the product, Apple was entering a market where the existing competitors weren’t all that great; they were either somewhat hard to use and dumb, or hard to use and somewhat dumb.
What if Apple had entered a market with a complex, entrenched ecosystem based on advanced infrastructure and services, where devices offered an endless array of features that people actually made use of? And what if it actually succeeded in overturning this market and brought many of its advantages to the rest of the world?
That would have been even more impressive. But that’s exactly what happened in Japan.
The first iPhone to hit Japan was the 3G in 2008. At that point, Apple had answered two of the biggest criticisms of the original model often made by mobile aficionados: the lack of 3G connectivity, and the inability to install third-party apps. But the iPhone 3G wasn’t anywhere near meeting the list of various features that Japanese users had come to consider table stakes.
There was no infrared port, the most common way to exchange contact details IRL at the time. The AIM-style SMS chat interface made no sense in a country where everyone already used push mobile email. The Safari browser was literally too good — it couldn’t load Japanese C-HTML mobile websites or services like NTT Docomo’s i-mode portal, which essentially amounted to a fork of the entire web. The camera couldn’t focus on QR codes, which were frequently used to launch said websites. There was no Felica NFC for mobile payments. There was no TV tuner. Hell, there wasn’t a loop to attach a little Rilakkuma charm to.
And perhaps most critically, there weren’t even emoji. First developed by NTT Docomo in the late ‘90s, other carriers like KDDI and SoftBank soon developed their own interchangeable character sets; emoji, literally meaning “picture characters,” quickly became an essential feature of mobile communication and expression in Japan. Apple didn’t have any support for emoji at all when it launched the iPhone 3G in July 2008, but later provided a character set for Japanese users with the iOS 2.2 update that November.
Although you could unlock emoji on global iPhones with hidden features in third-party apps, Apple didn’t officially enable the characters around the world until iOS 5 came out nearly three years later. The Unicode Consortium had been codifying emoji since 2007, but Apple was the first major international phone maker to add compatible characters to its own software, and it’s impossible to imagine the subsequent global phenomenon taking place without the iPhone.
I moved to Japan in 2008 and got a midrange SoftBank flip phone made by NEC. I really loved that phone. I could watch TV or play Mega Man 2 on the train, it lit up with cute LED animations on the outside whenever I got a message, and the vibrant world of Japanese mobile communications was a great way for me to start making some headway with the language. I’d meet people at parties, exchange details with them over infrared, then arrange to hang out the next time by sending an emoji-peppered message to their @softbank.ne.jp mobile email address. Today, although I might sometimes have trouble with a tricky turn of phrase in a novel or a phone call with the tax office, I consider myself absolutely fluent at texting in Japanese. It’s like a whole other form of the language unto itself, and without any formal education it’s the one I ended up learning first.
That phone died the next summer in an unfortunate camping downpour — Japanese phones have been waterproof for a while, yes, but at that point it was still a high-end feature — and I decided to replace it with an iPhone 3G. Granted, the iPhone clearly offered a ton of advantages over a Japanese flip phone, like Google Maps, the App Store, its breakthrough user interface, and so on. But often none of that mattered. Often, using an iPhone in a Japan just straight-up sucked. The missing features hurt, of course, but the bigger problem was that having experienced what life was like in the tightly integrated Japanese mobile ecosystem, moving to the iPhone felt like using a product that simply wasn’t designed for the world I lived in. Because, well, it wasn’t.
How, then, did Apple get to its current position where Japan is one of its strongest and most lucrative markets?
Although there were teething pains associated with using an iPhone in Japan at first, the product’s breakthroughs were no less revolutionary here. Apple’s brand was already very strong, and the iPhone was always going to find at least some audience among Japan’s affluent, tech-savvy consumers. But it wouldn’t have reached critical mass without some extremely aggressive moves from its initial carrier partner, SoftBank.
SoftBank secured exclusive rights to the iPhone in Japan much like AT&T did in the US. Japanese carriers, however, were traditionally far more involved in the development of phones, and Japan’s two biggest — KDDI and the dominant NTT Docomo — refused to sell the iPhone for years. This gave SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, a longtime friend and admirer of Steve Jobs, an opening to differentiate his also-ran network. Son deployed audacious pricing and smart marketing campaigns to position the iPhone as an exotic, advanced, and attainable device. I got my 3G in 2009 for essentially nothing via a campaign called “iPhone for everybody.”
The SoftBank CEO’s relationship with Jobs also helped Apple tailor the iPhone for Japan. “Masayoshi Son was quick to start persuading Apple how important emoji is in the Japanese market and Apple decided to make the change,” veteran Japanese tech journalist Nobuyuki Hayashi tells me. “If the initial iPhone carrier were someone else, I am not sure if they could successfully persuade Steve Jobs to add emoji to the iPhone.” SoftBank’s tactics shook up the Japanese mobile industry, and KDDI eventually started selling the iPhone with the 4S in 2011. After years of losing subscribers to its smaller rivals, NTT Docomo finally caved in 2014 for the iPhone 6 launch.
Once it was clear that Japan would indeed move from flip phones to smartphones, Apple found itself with very little competition. Arch-rival Samsung’s mobile presence in Japan is very small barring the occasional burst of promotion from Docomo and KDDI, which usually remove the manufacturers’ logos along with much of the individual brand cachet they may have. And domestic phone makers have struggled to compete on performance or pricing in recent years; the likes of Panasonic, Toshiba, and Fujitsu have largely retreated from the high-end market.
The iPhone remains the best-selling smartphone in Japan, then, and it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon. And the launch of the iPhone 7 was arguably more significant here than anywhere else. Apple’s first waterproof phone brought it up to par with Japanese manufacturers, and the company also produced Japan-specific models compatible with Felica, the ubiquitous version of NFC found in train ticket gates, vending machines, and store registers. It’s another rare example of Apple bending its own products to fit a specific country. The traditional Apple Pay model simply wouldn’t have worked in Japan, where split-second payments from topped-up electronic wallets are the norm.
In turn, Apple’s efforts in Japan have resonated around the world. We certainly wouldn’t have emoji otherwise, and we might not have waterproof iPhones — even iOS 11’s built-in QR code reader will primarily be intended for Asian markets. In any case, the iPhone’s success in Japan is remarkable and unprecedented. Apple came from nowhere to dominate an insular market, eventually integrated with it, and brought some of its best elements to everywhere else.