Picking a cellphone in Japan: iPhone or not?
November 1, 2009 1:13 AM   Subscribe

I just moved in Tokyo, where I'll stay for a year. I need a cellphone and I'm leaning towards getting an iPhone. What do you recommend?

I asked a similar question about choosing the iPhone or not in Japan. The only difference is I was still in Canada then, and I was wondering if I should get the iPhone in Canada to later use it in Japan, which is not a good solution.

Now, I've been in Japan for a bit more than two weeks, where I'll stay in Tokyo for up to a year. I quickly realized that a cellphone here is close to a necessity. I rented a black NEC N905i cellphone from PuPuRu for a week, using the NTT DoCoMo network. It was really convenient, though the initial sign-up is confusing and I wish I could have used text messaging. The phone itself works well, but it was a bit bulky and I got lost in the menus a few times.

I've met some people in Japan with an iPhone they like, but most of them are not Japanese. Many of the Japanese people I know are satisfied with the phone they have, and it's usually not an iPhone. I get the impression the iPhone is not liked by the Japanese, but adored by foreigners in Japan. Additionally, I heard the official carrier of the iPhone, SoftBank, doesn't have a great network, but it's tolerable in Tokyo.

Today, I almost went to the nearby SoftBank store to get myself an iPhone, but I decided to discuss about this first. If I was still in Canada, I'd get myself an iPhone (or an Android phone) right away, but the opinion on the iPhone here in Japan seems to be split. I've also been using an iPod Touch for almost a year. I like it and sometimes wish I would have got further with an iPhone instead.

Also, I know if I'm not getting an iPhone, I'll be missing out on all the "cool" features many Japanese cellphones offer. These include "keitai saifu" (cellphone wallet), 1seg, dual camera, decorative mail, and for some, 8MP camera, HD video, solar-power recharge. It's all fun, but I also need to think about a phone that will get things done than just do nice things. Just by using my iPod Touch, I've been able to store and sync my contacts with my MacBook, listen to my music, check my calendar, take notes, watch videos, and run many useful apps I've bought and downloaded. From the iPod Touch, the iPhone would basically be a step up, with a phone, GPS, and a camera. Besides, do I need some Hello Kitty or Disney characters to make my e-mails cute just to say hi? As for the cellphone wallet, I obtained a convenient Suica card already.

Finally, if you're in Japan, let me know if you recommend the iPhone and if its official carrier, SoftBank, is tolerable in Tokyo. If not, which phone and carrier do you recommend?

In advance, thanks to everyone for your time!
posted by remi to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've not used Softbank as a carrier, but everyone I know who has think their coverage is crap, so while you might end up with a cool phone, you may not always be able to use it when you need to.

You're right when you say the iPhone seems to be a gaijin thing. I don't know any Japanese people that use them and the number of Japanese people I've seen with them is piddlingly small.

I use a 906i and am with Docomo. Have not had any issues either with coverage or the phone itself. I use the phone for email, text messages, web browsing, watching TV (in high def :) ) oh and I occasionally make phone calls. I'm not familiar with the 905i, but the model I have is slim and flat enough (maybe 1.5cm depth when folded). You can switch the menu to English easily enough if you need to.

It really comes down to what you need to do with the phone. In terms of features, most modern Japanese phones will do as much or more than an iphone with the exception of your synching with iStuff. If you have a mechanism to do that already, I'd say go with a Japanese phone.
posted by CardinalRichelieuHandPuppet at 1:12 AM on November 1, 2009

Last time I was in Japan, most of my friends had an iPhone. So it is not a gaijin thing, although it may be a "geeks attending programming conference" thing.

I also disagree about "Japanese phones will do as much or more than an iphone". Each Japanese phone is essentially throw-away for the maker. It will never get updates, new apps, etc. One some, the "Internet" it connects to isn't even the real Internet... I am not a fan of the iPhone, but it is much better if you want OS updates or third-party apps. Amazingly, Apple is the least evil option over there. (I prefer Android here.)

If you want the Japanese hardware, though, then you will have to live with the poor software. (Personally, I don't find it that difficult to carry a Suica card and a few bills in addition to my cell phone. But perhaps I value software freedom more than not carrying a wallet.)
posted by jrockway at 1:26 AM on November 1, 2009

Seconding that the iPhone is loooooved by the foreigners here, but not as popular with the Japanese. They have had cool(er) phones for ages, and don't really benefit from what the iPhone offers.

Carriers... First, if you are staying for a year, you might want a pay-as-you-go anyway, because the contracts are usually 2 year minimum. Those usually come from Softbank.

Regardless, one thing the people around me really like Softbank for is the White Plan, where you can call any other softbank user for free. The flat rate for this is really, really cheap (somewhere less than 2000JPY/mo, iirc), and super awesome when you consider how expensive the per-minute fees can be.

I don't know anyone in the Tokyo metro or in the far suburbs where I live that has had problems with their network.

(I have au, and one of their "free" phones on a 2-year minimum contract. While my experience with them has been trouble-free, it is reputed to be not the cheapest service. I have them because their English language support is better than Docomo, and at the time I got here, Softbank was much less popular and had much less English support.)
posted by whatzit at 1:27 AM on November 1, 2009

It will never get updates, new apps, etc. One some, the "Internet" it connects to isn't even the real Internet... I am not a fan of the iPhone, but it is much better if you want OS updates or third-party apps. Amazingly, Apple is the least evil option over there. (I prefer Android here.)

Most of this is just plain wrong.
There are a ton of third party apps you can download and online services that you can connect to. Most of them are in Japanese (funnily enough), but they're there. Not sure which phones you're referring to re '[not] the real Internet'. Some plans will charge you more for browsing, but I'm not aware of any that restrict you from teh internets altogether.

You may be right about the OS upgrade, but really - meh. Not that much of a big deal.

By less evil you mean...?
posted by CardinalRichelieuHandPuppet at 2:07 AM on November 1, 2009

Only to clarify, with any phone, I'd probably do or need the following:

- Call people.
- Sync contacts and calendar with my MacBook or via the Internet.
- Access, post on, and update status on Twitter, Facebook, and Mixi.
- Listen to music, take photos, and record videos.
- Write messages and browse sites in English, French, or Japanese.
- Browse the Web.
- Use a map with a GPS to locate myself.

The third-party applications for the iPod Touch and the iPhone are really useful too and may not be available on Japanese cellphones. For example, I think finding a Dropbox client for a Japanese cellphone may be impossible. I also bought some great Japanese dictionaries for my iPod Touch.
posted by remi at 2:24 AM on November 1, 2009

I love my iPhone. My Japanese husband loves his iPhone. His brother loves his iPhone.

Web browsing is MUCH easier on the iPhone than any keitai I've used (and I've had 5 or 6 over the years). The apps are damn useful.

This issue you are going to have is the contract which is a two year minimum and your better choice might be to do a prepaid type of phone deal for which a 2 year minimum doesn't come into play.
posted by gomichild at 3:23 AM on November 1, 2009

A friend of mine recently discovered that iPhones are horribly horribly expensive in Japan (compared to Australia!) for some reason. Don't know exactly why.
posted by polyglot at 4:15 AM on November 1, 2009

- Call people.
- Sync contacts and calendar with my MacBook or via the Internet.
- Access, post on, and update status on Twitter, Facebook, and Mixi.
- Listen to music, take photos, and record videos.
- Write messages and browse sites in English, French, or Japanese.
- Browse the Web.
- Use a map with a GPS to locate myself.

Don't overthink this. Japanese phones may do all sorts of things, but the iPhone is pretty much tailor-made for your needs. It will do every one of these things with aplomb, especially the syncing of contacts and web browsing.
posted by The Michael The at 4:32 AM on November 1, 2009

They're not terribly popular among younger Japanese people (the one student I've seen that has one isn't from Japan), and I'm not a fan of Softbank. I started out with a Jphone keitai, and stuck with them when they became Vodafone, even though the service and quality noticeably declined. When they became Softbank, they got even worse. The coverage is not good outside of Tokyo, and the service is pretty weak. They did used to have a good amount of English available on their websites, if that hasn't changed.

I use au, and it's alright. If you're using your phone for website reading, it can get expensive, but my bill is usually about 4,000 yen a month. (And my phone has penguins.)
posted by Ghidorah at 5:22 AM on November 1, 2009

if your want to sync with your MacBook's iCal and Address Book, you're done thinking: get the iPhone.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:11 AM on November 1, 2009

I don't live in Tokyo but in Okinawa, and the Iphone is amazing (it is only on Softbank). I can't speak of all the gucci feature on the Japanese phone, but I've found that unless you speak the language (which I don't) watching the TV or some of the other features are moot. For me the apps make it - if anything for skype alone on WIFI to call back to the states is good. For around 8000 yes I can surf unlimited web and call what I need (using the double white plan).

One other thing that I found when driving around is I can plan the route in google maps, then I email myself the link and I can drive/navigate around and really helps with navigation in the area.
posted by aggienfo at 6:18 AM on November 1, 2009

You'll be fine with the iPhone as long as you're able to shell out the few man yen it takes to purchase it outright. You almost certainly won't be able to get a contract from SoftBank without a 3-year visa, docomo and au were more generous to me and my 1-year visa, allowing me to go on contract anyway.

I don't have a huge majority of people I know have iPhones (all of the people I interact with on a regular basis here are Japanese), but there are a number of people who have them and seem to like them.

For regular web browsing I would say that the iPhone is significantly better than a regular phone. Don't worry about the features that you'll be missing, because honestly you won't miss them that much.

I think the big hurdle is the cost--can you afford to buy an iPhone? It looks like it'll cost you 69,000 yen for the 32-gig 3GS, which can be a bit tricky when you've just made it to Japan.
posted by that girl at 4:00 PM on November 1, 2009

From the list of things you intend to do with your phone, the iPhone is fine. Many Japanese phones do not have English interfaces, and they are limited in terms of what applications they can run (most of them use versions of the Symbian OS and run Java apps). Music support is likewise limited to what you can get from each carrier's walled garden and can be expensive. If you're used to iTunes or use it on your PC, stick with that.

A few people complained about SoftBank's coverage and reception quality. That was true a few years ago, but these days their coverage in major cities is comparable to DoCoMo and au. (There will always be spots where one carrier's reception is good while another's is nonexistent, but that's just due to where cellular antenna are located and the geometry of the particular building/area you're in.)

As long as you have a 3-year visa (and even if you don't in some cases) you'll be able to enter into the two-year monthly payment plan. Under the current iPhone sales campaign, you can get away with paying 8,270 yen per month (since unless you only plan to send emails, you will max out the flat-rate packet plan). That's about as much as you'd pay for other phones released within the past 6-12 months. If you have to buy the phone outright up front, or pay on a 12 month basis, it will certainly hurt a bit more -- but you will still pay the about the same price for the iPhone as you would for other mobile phones (60-80,000 yen).

One piece of advice: don't buy your phone now. au just announced their fall/winter lineup, DoCoMo is going to announce their new models on the 10th, and SoftBank will do likewise very soon now. See what gets announced, visit a store and fiddle around with them to see if you like anything, and then make your decision.

Incidentally, I use a DoCoMo phone, myself, since I like the camera, form factor, and other features of the phone more than I did those of the iPhone 3G when it was released last year. If you want to watch One-seg TV broadcasts, sync TV/DVD recordings onto your phone, use digital wallet technology, or use mobile-only websites, you won't want to use the iPhone.
posted by armage at 8:40 PM on November 1, 2009

One other thing: someone mentioned upthread how Japanese phones never get new updates or upgrades. This comment reflects a lack of understanding of how the mobile phone industry works in Japan.

Each season's lineup is planned by the carriers in close coordination with manufacturers, with the exception of very low volume smartphone makers (Nokia, HTC, Apple). By doing this they attempt to "theme" each release and make sure they don't have phones with similar feature sets and prices cannibalizing each other. Also, because these releases come in waves three times a year, and a modicum of standardization is necessary to ensure compatibility of software across all models in a particular season, the OS and major apps are decided well in advance, and aside from minor interface tweaks to suit the particulars of the various phones, do not change very much. Updates occur when bugs are found, but new features are not added to older phones -- this would require testing across all older models, and some would not support the new features, leading to a mess of compatibility issues. Manufacturers cannot issue upgrades themselves; the carriers act as gatekeepers to the phones. You'll notice that which maker made which one is almost an afterthought -- they are instead referred to as an au phone or a SoftBank phone.

It's not quite this simple, of course, but this is generally how it works for the carriers and major manufacturers supplying phones in Japan. (That includes non-Japanese makers like Samsung and LG.) Apple is unique in that they control the hardware, the software, and the upgrade/expansion path, and only have one or two very similar models to support running a single operating system. This is highly unusual in Japan.

Oh, and the comment about how phones can't use the "real" Internet: for the last few years, most phones have a so-called "full browser" that allows one to access the Internet as you would on a computer. The problem is that for Japanese people, most of the sites they tend to use on a phone (banking, shopping, Mixi, etc.) have i-mode or ezweb equivalents that are much easier to use on a phone. Using the full browser has, up until recently, been a big pain -- cursor movement is tricky, it costs a lot, and there are no perceivable advantages when most Japanese-language content is already mobile-ready. Touchscreens and the threat from the iPhone have improved things, but i-mode is still the standard.
posted by armage at 8:57 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

As Armage said, the whole "fake" internet thing is a non-issue. Over a decade ago, DoCoMo had a walled garden, but that was a long time ago. All phones now access the "real" internet, the issue is just how much they support (Javascript? Flash? etc.)

For almost everything you want to do, either the iPhone or the one DoCoMo android phone would be your best bets. However, there's one issue (and one point where I have to disagree with Armage): I know a few Japanese people with iPhones. Every one of them ALSO has another phone. Their other phone is the one they use for talking to people, and the iPhone is used for everything else (email, camera, apps, etc.). And this is in Tokyo. It's not that SoftBank is completely unusable or anything, but according them them, there is noticeably less SoftBank coverage than AU or DoCoMo.
posted by Bugbread at 12:36 PM on November 2, 2009

Thanks to everyone for your comments. They sure brought food for thought.

I bought a black 32GB iPhone 3G S yesterday, since the local SoftBank store ran out of the 16GB kind. My Japanese girlfriend helped me get it and she purchased it in advance under her name, meaning I won't have to deal with the problem I could have for staying in Japan only for a year.

It all came down to whether I wanted Japanese hardware or American software. Browsing the catalogues by SoftBank, Au, and DoCoMo, many Japanese cellphones had appealing hardware features. However, they were mostly just bells and whistles. It may sound cool to have two cameras or a "keitai saifu," but the question I asked myself is if I'll really use that functionality. The answer was, "probably not."

What I needed most are features that were already present on my iPod Touch. These include address book and calendar sync, IMAP mail access, Web browsing, and the most important one, the third-party applications. The iPhone already offers all these and more, with a user interface I'm already comfortable with. Furthermore, I never had a problem with my three languages clashing into "mojibake" (undecipherable characters) on an iPod, and I don't think I will have that problem on an iPhone.

Thanks again for your feedback. I'm sure they'll be of use to other people facing the same dilemma.
posted by remi at 2:49 PM on November 3, 2009

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