Purchasing Value: The iPhone in Japan

As I mentioned in a previous post on why 100 yen stores are not always the best choice, I am not adverse to spending money if I am getting value. For me, the iPhone represents an enormous amount of value, especially as a foreigner living in Japan, when compared to other mobile phones on the market. It has oft been touted that Japanese mobile phones are the best in the world, years ahead of their foreign competitors – but sorry, this just isn’t true anymore.

Previous Phones:

I’ve been with Softbank since I first came to Japan 6 years ago – for the simple reason that their models have always had their interface available in English. This is of course a huge boon for anyone new in Japan who hasn’t yet got the language down (good luck if you’re in that situation by the way, it took me 2 years before I finally felt like I could actually communicate competently). I can’t remember the exact models, because they were fairly bog-standard keitai that make phone calls and that’s about it. I believe they had calendar functions too – but since they didn’t sync with any of my computers I really couldn’t see the point in maintaining two separate calendars. Wouldn’t be great if my keitai could use my iCal as it’s data source? My last keitai had a TV too – I think I tried it once or twice, but the reception was horrendous and who wants to watch daytime J-TV anyway?! In short, they made calls and sent text messages. I never sent Japanese text messages though as typing in Kana on those models would require learning an entirely new keyboard. No thank you.

What value does my iPhone give me?

Easy Kana entry, Romaji style:

img_0004Essential for any foreigners who can’t be bothered trying to get used to the dingy and awkward keitai keyboards, the iPhone has a full size Qwerty with kana entry in Romaji, just the way you would enter it on a computer. Add in predictive text and full sentence Kanji changing and suddenly you’ll quite capable of mobile communication in Japanese! Wonderful!

All the news I could ever need:

img_0001Only minutes after we had moved in a few weeks ago, a woman came to our door trying to sell us a subscription to Yomiuri. I told here I read all my news on the internet and my iPhone, and she said I would be the death of the newspaper industry. I didn’t have the heart to tell her how true that was – newspapers simply don’t have a future in the digital age. Even the New York Times has calculated it would be cheaper for them to go entirely digital and give all their subscribers an Amazon Kindle than it is to continue printing on paper.

Rather than being fed a selection of news articles that are of no interest to me, I get all my news delivered to my iPhone RSS Reader from my personal selection of major new sites and personal blogs. I get job listings, news from home, news from Japan, new blog comments, cute lolcat pictures, political satire and my favourite web comics – I get whatever I want. Easy, simple, free.


img_0005Oh sure, your keitai has GPS too does it? Do you know how to use it? Have you even attempted too – or not because it’s all in Japanese, runs slowly in Java and requires about 5 clicks to open it through some ridiculous application menu structure? Thought so… In one click, I can find out exactly where I currently am in Japan with the interface of google maps that I’m used to using on the computer anyway. I can search for another location easily in both Japanese and English, and get perfect directions there for either walking, by car/bike, or by public transport. For most place, I can even get a street-view of the place so I know exactly what to look out for when I get there. I have to honestly say that living in Japan and having my iPhone has made getting around so incredibly easy, even if all the other value added features disappeared it would be worth it for this alone.

Aside, it occurred to me the other day to wonder why taxi don’t all carry iPhones. We tried to order a taxi to take our friend from our place to the station last week, and after explaining our full address and postal code they still didn’t have any idea and actually wanted directions to the house. Was the biggest taxi company in Kyoto actually using a paper based out-dated map? Do they even know of the existence of Google Maps, because if they had it could have given them an exact and correct position with the address we gave, in seconds no less. I was truly shocked. I really wanted to say, “get a damn iPhone, you’re a total failure as a taxi company if you don’t know where stuff is!”. We eventually had to go outside and find the nearest apartment block with a name that was actually on their map. Update: For the first time in my life, a Japanese deliver man got angry with me this week because he couldn’t find our house. How much simpler would his life be if he had an iPhone?

The Internet. The REAL Internet:

img_0006Whoever thought of having to make a special separate version of the internet just for mobile phones should be shot. My students claim to use the internet on their keitai all the time, but what they’re actually using a minuscule subset of the real internet that has been pre-programmed into their bookmarks, and it frustrates me no end to tell them to visit a site for homework only have to have them say they couldn’t view it. The iPhone on the other hand does not need to view mobile internet pages because it can view normal internet pages, and the touch interface is such that navigating a regular size internet page is really rather intuitive and natural. The power of just being able to look up anything at your fingertips is pretty much un-describable… wait, no, I can describe it – it’s pretty damn cool.


im_for_skypePrearranged to talk to your folks back home but can’t get back to your computer? No worries, just fire up Fring, an iPhone application that lets you talk (no video chat mind you) on Skype and numerous other chat and IM services. Update: Skype also now has an official client for the iPhone, which you might prefer if you only use it and don’t need the additional IM services that Fring offers. Frugally speaking, this means you can now make international calls at local rates using your Skype credit

Of course, they’re a ton more features I have even begin to touch upon – the fact that it’s the best iPod yet, the app store, integration with iCal and address book, the ability to fetch emails from your yahoo/gmail/regular mail accounts… frankly I don’t see how you can afford to live without an iPhone.

40 thoughts on “Purchasing Value: The iPhone in Japan

  1. Excellent post! You’ve just pushed me a little more into thinking of investing in an iphone when I get to Japan. But how much are they and what is the best deal you can get?

    Mike’s latest blog post is…Work-Life Balance in Japan

  2. Hmm, thats mighty difficult question there Gakaran~

    My personal case: having been with Softbank for the entire 6 years being here, a credit check was not neccessary and I was put on the regular same-as-a-Japanese-person payment plan of nothing upfront, 27-month contract @ 8,000 yen a month. The price has lowered recently though with the pending announcement of a new iPhone, so I believe that could be pushed down to more like 6,000 yen a month if you were to sign up now on the same contract.

    However, many foreigners have had a lot of difficultly getting an iPhone. Perhaps that has changed recently with the price drop and glut of leftover units that Japanese people didn’t want… but I imagine as a newcomer to Japan with no credit history etc, they may insist you pay for the phone upfront or at least partially upfront, probably something in the range of 20,000-50,000 yen. Then you will have a regular contract at about 5,000 yen /month. I don’t think this can be helped as they really have no guarantee you won’t just sign the contract then run off with a free iPhone.

    When are you planning on coming to Japan anyway? Will it be a permanent move, a test-the-waters year long expedition, or just a flying visit? Have you thought about jobs? It would certainly help your case if you were employed as a seisha-in with a real Japanese company and not just doing the typical English teaching bull…

  3. Sounds great! Just two questions: is there predictive text for English as well? And how is the reception? I often travel to out of the way places and love that my Au phone always gets better reception than Docomo, but have never compared it with Softbank.

    Amy’s latest blog post is…Mentaiko

  4. Very informative post, I was reading on a blog about another VoIP service called vopium, thread title was Vopium: the alternative mobile Skype? is this a different application or what?

  5. The best deal on an iphone is…buy it elsewhere and bring it to Japan! Electronics here are at least 20% more expensive than, say, the states.

    And as for the contract, you shouldn’t need to put down a large deposit up front, so long as you have a credit card you can give them. Remember, most Japanese keitai cost as much or more as the iPhone (the $600-900 range), and they’ll gladly give them to foreigners who sign a contract and give them a credit card. Their protection against you running off with the iphone is the fact that it (theoretically) can’t be used on other networks.

    But hey, your mileage may vary. Let me know what you do in the end, as I was also highly considering picking up an iPhone before my next visit to Japan.

    Also also also…new models due out in July, so might want to hold off a bit.

    David Shackelford’s latest blog post is…An Online Identity Crisis

  6. @amy – I just tried on my iPhone, and though english is *corrected*, it doesnt seem to be *predicted* , unlike the japanese. I wonder why that is – more than likely i turned it off somewhere. Also, if you’re concerned about reception, it’s quite likely that some areas of rural japan arent covered by the 3G network yet.

    @david – interesting ideas, but do you think a foreign credit card would work ok, as im fairly sure it wouldnt. I came here 6 years ago, and my foreign credit card was worth nothing… you need to prove your income, have a japanese bank account and a job etc etc, signing a new contract here is not so easy. also, im pretty sure bringing an iphone from the states to japan wouldnt work, as you couldnt just walk into a softbank store and say “please give me just a SIM card without a phone”- theyd be like “wtf?! no, thats not how we do it in japan, you crazy foreigner!”.

    There are indeed new models due out in June/July, but if you keep waiting for the next newest thing you’ll end up waiting forever. I’d say get one now while it’s cheap, and use it until you’re not satisfied with it anymore.

  7. Hmm, according the website it isnt even available for the iphone yet, and hardly any of the models they have listed even have Wifi, so the whole point of free calls on wifi really doesnt work. Unless it can get a huge numbers of users behind it, it will die out. I suspect the latter. Actually, even the name sounds a bit like an aprils fools… v-opium; virtual opium?

  8. I used a foreign credit card to get phones from AU, Docomo and eMobile (in 2005, 2007 and 2008 respectively). I assume that Softbank wouldn’t care where the card was issued, either.

    My current weapon of choice is the E-Monster — a Windows Mobile smartphone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The beauty of this device is that tethering to your home computer is included in the unlimited data plan, so for your 8,000 yen a month you get unlimited computer and mobile internet access. (Although I ended up getting high-speed hikari fiber so I could use BitTorrent and view streaming media — eMobile is fast enough for most purposes but generally not fast enough for this.)

    The big downside is being stuck with Windows Mobile, which has most of the features of the iPhone, but a crappier interface and more software bugs. On the plus side, there is a wide selection of freeware apps available for download.

    Joe Jones’s latest blog post is…Rare family names

  9. I am seriously thinking about getting an Iphone.
    I have been with Softbank for several years also in Japan. Yesterday I went to Yodobashi Camera to get a price quote: Almost 8000 yens per month for unlimited email and 16GB of Internet download (plus phone cost) for a 26 months contract with the first two month free for the cost of the phone. (So I pay the phone during only 24 month, a special offer running until September).
    Is there a way to purchase an Iphone somewhere at a better price (it cost about 65 000 yens when paying the Iphone upfront at Softbank) and activate it at Softbank? Softbank says it is not possible, but is there a way around?
    Thanx for any answer.

  10. Sory Haha, Japanese cellphone companies do not allow you just get a sim card and put it on their network, you have to get a phone from them too. 8000 yen per month is what I pay too, and its not so bad when you consider the value you get with the iphone – especially now that its increddibly easy to tether your iphone to your computer for free 3g internet anywhere!

    .-= Jamie´s last blog ..Join the team and write for TokyoBIT =-.

  11. Howz it going everybody. A little incident with this Iphone3GS. They have a campaign going on till the end of Sep 09(its called Iphone for everybody)and let me warn you cause they got some special rules that apply to this campaign. First, your period of stay has to be at least 27months, If so you can probably purchase the 3GS on a monthly payment plan. Second, if you wanna pay for the phone all at once, you need a credit card for the monthy payment???? Is it me or does something sound a bit crazy with this. In my case, the period of stay is 21months and I do not have a credit card so I was basically F******! I have been living in Japan for over 30 years and I constantly renew my VISA but there ain’t s***t I can do about the period of stay. Oh yeah, there is another way to purchase this phone. If you don’t purchase through the campaign(you end up paying 1500yen more a month!)and have a japanese bank account you can purchase it( at least thats what the softbank guy said). But thats a rip off. To wrap this up, if your not japanese and you plan on purchasing the new Iphone 3GS, make sure you at least have over 27 months on your period of stay and also make you have a credit card(^^)

  12. Sorry to hear about your grievance with Softbank Mark, but this has nothing to do with an iPhone – you’re making a new contract with them and they clearly dont trust you to pay every month. The very fact that you mention you want to pay for the phone upfront instead of the monthly payment plan along with your regular contract is pretty suspicious – it looks quite blatantly like you’re going to get the phone then cancel your contract.

    Also, if you really have lived here for 30 years I’d have thought you’d have applied for permanent residency by now and gotten a proper Japanese credit card. I suggest you get your life in order before you get a shiny new phone.

  13. Jamie, hate to break your heart buddy but this is strictly with the IPHONE(campaign) only and its just as easy as taking candy from a baby to get a regular softbank phone. If you would read their contract before commenting you would have known. Also, there ain’t no need to apply for a permanent residency cause all you gotta do is renew it every few years. Ain’t no need for a credit card either. Its funny cause I was able to get over a million yen for a loan on a car but can’t purchase one f***** phone… Been here for over 30 years with a steady job and no criminal records…. wonder what part of my life I need to get in order.

  14. Sorry, I didn’t have time to read the contract, since they pretty much just threw the iPhone at me. I had less than 6 months on my VISA.

    Maybe the problem is just that you dont have a credit card then – in which case, why not just get one? If you credit rating is so good as to get a big loan like that, I’m sure a little credit card wont be so hard?

  15. Chill out guys!
    I recently renewed my Softbank contract and upgraded from my old phone to an iPhone 3GS. I have been paying my monthly bills through the bank. Although I have been here for more than 4 years, my remaining period of stay is less than 27 months. No questions were asked or credit card required. So I figure that if you are renewing your contract, have a good payment history (through a bank) and so accumulated their points, and want to upgrade to the iPhone, no questions will be asked. You will walk home with a new contract and a brand new iPhone.

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