Ok, here’s my “from the trenches” report on all the advances that have had a perceivable affect on daily life in Japan. This is mostly what I’ve noticed in comparison to when I was here briefly 2 years ago.

Cell phones

Everyone has nice phones. Everyone. Even your average house wife is sitting there on the train reading something on her phone. The “free” models put here the American equivalents to shame. But as far as I can tell, the high end models aren’t really that much more advanced hardware-wise than those that are available in the US, except that they all have 3g, and the new ones have “one-seg” TV tuners.
There seems to be a good part of the population that uses a cell phone instead of a PC. The cell phones are much more reliable, can do more messaging/photo/video than the average person knows how to do on a PC, and are much cheaper. Screw the $100 PC. It’s already here.
Interestingly, even the most expensive models still have the standard keyboard layout. No sure type or full keyboard (though I did see some re-branded HTC models that have the full keyboard, but there were 2 out of maybe one hundred display models). Instead the input system on Japanese phones has continued to improve, and has compensated for the lack of a better physical input system. Better memory of input, smarter conversion, a new “2-touch” input method, and better prediction. It’s sad to think that most Americans are sitting there fighting with T9. Blackberry’s suretype has already shown how much better the situation can be.
Apparently, phones also have the ability to act as a debit card at certain stores which support the system, but my second cousin tells me that its still relatively rare to see someone using it. Perhaps because until everyone supports it, you still have to carry around a wallet anyways.
Most phones are either flip phones with giant screens, or slider and slide + rotate style phones.


Ok, maybe it’s not in every cell phone (yet), but in a lot of places. The most impressive thing I saw was my relative’s radar detector + GPS unit. It was essentially a standard radar detector, but with a few GPS twists. One thing it can do is to remember where it saw signals previously, and then correlate new signals if they seem to happen in the same location. Since cops rarely sit exactly in the same spot to catch speeders, it is rare to see a signal in the same location. The system realizes this, and adds an entry to its database of ‘stray signal locations’. Apparently, even simple things like automatic doors can cause these such signals.

Electronic Dictionaries

Ok, my basis for comparison here is a “word tank” that I bought maybe 7-10 years ago. Back then, you typically had two-way lookups between two languages, and a dinky display. I’ve been looking at getting one for learning Chinese, and the choices are quite awesome. The main candidate right now has:

  • Chinese, Japanese, English: can go from any language to any other.
  • Live queries
  • Pronunciation for some languages
  • Giant touch screen, with the ability to highlight arbitrary text and jump to new definitions. Also hand writing-based input
  • All for ~300 US


Basically the same as the US, except mostly smaller TV’s, since the big ones can’t fit in the average Japanese household. All the major broadcast channels now have HD signals. A good majority of public displays now are flat LCDs or plasmas.

Smart cards

It seems like the IC smart card is the answer to all of Tokyo’s nightmarish consolidation problems. It used to be that you had to have separate charge cards for the different train systems in Tokyo, but all that has been reduced to one card system, with a card that you can just wave at the turnstyle as you pass through. You can even use this card to pay for random things at many stores that accept it.


Not too much new here. Many stations now have barriers that prevent you from falling off the platform. They have gates that line up with the doors of the train, and which open only when the train doors open. Apparently there was some major accidents with people falling into the tracks that warranted this.


The Mac section of the computer store has the same selection of the US, sans iPhone. The PC sections have Dells, as well as a collection of the Japanese manufacturers. The main difference with the US is that you’ll see many more of:

  • Integrated space-saving all-in-one desktop models. The iMac concept is not new here. Not by a longshot.
  • Tiny portable XP machines.
  • Lots of colors for female customers.

The comments about tinyness, and more variation in design go for the peripherals as well. I picked up a small USB memory card reader that both looks better, works better, and is smaller than the Sandisk model I have in the US.
As for market share, Mac seems to be doing a little better thanks to the halo effect, but Windows still dominates by far (and far more so than in the US). I still haven’t been able to feel how prevalent Vista is, though my uncle did ask me “Is Vista ready yet?” Any mention of Linux is hard to find unless you really know where to look.
Also, 30Mbps down cable-based internet service here is $50 a month.

Music players

iPod’s dominate here as they do in they do in the Us. However, a great number of people I see listening to music on their phones. So iPod market share must be smaller if you include music-playing cell phones. Sony has an interesting Walkman + Video model (with a reasonable, snappy interface, and support for standard formats, and huge battery life), but none of this means anything to anyone that listens to music on their phones.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *