The Galapagos Syndrome and Japanese Cell Phones

November 8th, 2010By Category: Uncategorized

Many consider Japan to be the historical gold standard for mobile cell phone culture. It’s easy to see why. In 1979, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (more commonly known as NTT) launched the world’s first commercially automated cellular network. By the end of the 20th century, the country achieved another milestone in equipping Japanese cell phones with internet browsing capabilities, which were at that time, the only cell phones in the world to come with colour displays, MP3 players integrated cameras and radios. Industry firsts were pioneered and standardized in Japan, as its wireless infrastructure has since come to support phones that feature digital television, GPS tracking, bar code reading, video conferencing, face recognition and the abilities to function as a credit card or a boarding pass (among countless other features).

Though the vast majority outside Japan gape in shock at the bevy of features Japanese cell phones offer, the sophistication and complexity that make Japanese cell phones so unique are inextricably putting their own existence at risk. Such has been known as the Galapagos Syndrome: cell phones exclusive to Japan, too complicated to be able to survive anywhere outside their home environment.

Although Japanese cell phone manufacturers have sought opportunities abroad in the face of a shrinking domestic market, no Japanese cell phone manufacturer (with the exception of Sony Ericsson)  has been able to hawk its wares internationally to much success. Why?

Reason 1: Compatibility with the World

Japanese phone manufacturers have refused to adapt to the needs and restrictions of markets overseas despite the nonexistence of the wireless infrastructure demanded by their phones. 1seg. Wireless ticketing. The credit card function. All these features aren’t support by wireless carriers outside Japan, yet Japanese phone manufacturers have been reluctant in finding alternative solutions for wireless markets abroad.

Japan’s preference for CDMA over GSM doesn’t help its cause. As the international standard for telecommunications, GSM is used in more countries and is supported by more carriers than CDMA is. Unfortunately, part of the reason CDMA is used in Japan is because of the restrictive nature of CDMA itself, which locks the use of a phone exclusively into a wireless carrier as soon as you sign up. Sure, some Japanese phones are GSM capable, but these are the exception to the rule rather than norm.

Reason II: Product Lines

Visit any Japanese wireless carrier’s website and you’ll be overwhelmed by their needlessly expansive lines of virtually identical phones. The development of each phone is also a costly and time consuming endeavour, as each phone and its respective user interface are developed from the ground up despite visible and functional similarities.

Bottom lines and chances of success abroad would surely improve if Japanese phone manufacturers were to focus all of their time, effort and resources into cutting down and streamlining the swathe of phones currently offered into a single quality product (i.e. Apple’s iPhone).

Reason III: The Clamshell

The clamshell design is characteristic of most Japanese cell phones. It is also a liability. Though still wildly popular in Japan, the clamshell design has been around since the advent of the mobile phone and being considered antiquated by some measure, aren’t selling anywhere else en masse.

Consequently, neither are Japanese cell phones.

Reason IV: Software, Software, Software

Although the hardware used in Japanese phones is light years ahead of anything offered by foreign manufacturers, a clunky and often user unfriendly interface prevents the complete realization of the phone’s full potential.

Japanese phone makers have begun to address the issue in adapting open source mobile operating system Android, which allow them to not only save boatloads of cash in R&D, but gives their phones access to more than 70 000 applications and regular updates (and improvements) to the way users interact with their phones.


Though the Galapagosization of Japanese cell phones have assisted in developing an identity unique from cell phones found elsewhere in the world, it has led to missed business opportunities abroad and hyper-advanced phones that no one outside of Japan can use. The key to survival lies in untapped foreign markets. How Japan finds their way into these markets is anyone’s guess, but one can hope that resolving the four issues above will stop the divergent evolution of Japanese cell phones, and in such, hopefully bring these companies back to being at the cutting edge of the technological world.

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • Jim says:

    I really dislike how cellphones affect the internet in Japan where a lot of things are geared to towards keitais, think about how the average person in Japan will use their keitai to read the news, send email and watch videos online. That is great and all but that hinders the development of websites and computing in Japan.
    Japan is falling behind countries like Korea and China when it comes to using computers and it will be one of the reasons for their downfall if they don’t take massive steps to correct it.

  • Guest says:

    “SMS text message to a friend living in another country”
    Japanese phones, which you call toys, have had push email since 1999! And there needs to be agreements between carriers for SMS to be sent between countries, which would be useless because email is standard in Japan… YOu’re asking Japan to bend over to accomodate outdated technology!

  • Anonymous says:

    Good article, Thanks for taking the time to discuss this,It is extremely helpful for me. You make a great point. Got some great information here.

  • Stephen Tam says:

    Actually they aren’t stuck using CDMA. Softbank and Docomo which add up to be a majority over au by KDDI use UMTS a GSM standard. Anyways all three of them have committed to LTE, still that doesn’t mean Japan won’t be restrictive about which bands they purchase and utilized.

    Actually, they aren’t quite getting the picture. Go to Japan and you’ll see the iphone and the Xperia X10 as secondary phones just for pleasure use. Carriers still hold Japanese users by their balls

  • Kingfan66 says:

    But what still continues to baffle me is that you can pick up your large, clunky square-shaped Fisher Price My First Keitai telephone and watch TV, access wireless content, take photo and video, and download Hello Kitty wallpaper, yet you cannot send an SMS text message to a friend living in another country. Is a phone meant to be used for communication, or to hold the latest kawaii keitai charm?

  • davejenk1ns says:

    Dario, I would agree with your sentiment. I saw the iPhone entry into Japan as something of a non-event two years ago, because Japanese users were largely ignoring it. However, the iPhone momentum has only built up, and now the Android market is in full swing. I think Japan’s days of clamshell isolation are rapidly drawing to a close.

  • Dario says:

    I think they’re starting to get the picture domestically. A wave of (mostly Android) smart phones are coming now. I’m not sure if the Japanese market specific ones will be sold outside Japan though. Something needs to be done about the level of control the Japanese cell phone companies have over their customers. It was somewhat excusable when we were using (cheaper) phones that seemed so specially made for Japan, but these smart phones are using OS’s and GUI’s that are standard internationally.