Land of the Rising Sun
As many of you know, I recently traveled to Tokyo for a few days, mostly for leisure. Of course, being the “otaku” (or, loosely translated, geek) that I am, I couldn’t help but take many mental notes on the technology in use here. In the same vein as my post on India, here are a few of my findings.
1. Technology drives cultural norms, not the other way around
One of the most surprising parts about this trip is that I was expecting to see all sorts of crazy tech that we don’t have in the US. Instead, I found that the uniqueness of Japan is not the technology itself, but how it’s being used. the phones they use are largely the same (see below) and they use the same kind of laptops, internet connections, and even subway cars as we do. However, there are some differences. The first is that while NFC and RFID use exists in the US, it is currently a joke; many use traditional tickets for transit, and few (if any) use NFC for payment. On the Tokyo metro, nearly no one uses paper tickets, and many even use their phones to pay for the metro ticket (billed to their account). Additionally, in most places, you can pay with your “Suica card” aka your rapid transit card, and even get your change back to it. Contrast that with far lower credit acceptance, due to the charges and the cash culture, and it’s totally out of sync with the US. It’ll be a long time before I imagine this kind of NFC/RFID penetration in the United States.
2. Vending machines….vending machines everywhere
Here’s where the practicality comes into play again- the Japanese have no aversion to replacing labor with vending machines. I don’t just mean having vending machines on every block to replace most convenience stores, but I mean even in restaurants and major venues. At one restaurant I went to for ramen, you chose and paid for your ramen in the machine, and an assistant just took the slip and gave you the corresponding food a few minutes later. At a beer factory tour, you prepaid for the beers and the machine gave you tokens. While vending machines are “tacky” by American standards for anything but the lowest calibre purchase (eg amusement parks), it is a labor-saving and convenient way of doing business here.
3. The nation of iPhones and Flip Phones
Many of you gathered this was going to make it into my post based on my previous Facebook status and you were right. I have seen a total of 6 folks with Android phones here, and 0 Blackberries, Windows Phones, etc (I actually got a “Nokia? What is that?” when someone saw my phone). This country LOVES its iPhones. Everywhere you go, the populace has them; I even met one who had 2 iPhones in his hand. While many are using apps for the domestic market, you see plenty of heavy Facebook use as well. You can’t even get “2G” service here- the baseline of cellular is what T-Mobile and AT&T call “4G” HSPA+. It’s amazing to me that despite the propensity of Japanese brands hawking Android, it made so little impact against iOS.
The other part of this headline is the flip phone. Now, I don’t mean the flip phone your grandma has- these flip phones are seriously equipped with 2.5-3” screens and seem to have some processing power in them. However, they’re still “dumbphones” with a simple OS. Despite this, many folks have a flip phone to this day, and many more keep one side by side with their iPhone. I haven’t figured out why this is, but I would guess there is some cost element to the equation.
4. But not the land of the Macbook
While you may have assumed from the previous point that the Japanese are drinking the Apple Kool-Aid, it’s far from the reality. The first MacBook I saw here was in the airport, held by someone who was clearly American. Japan is still land of the PC, with tons of hardware built to the market with custom keyboards and price points. I would also fathom a guess that Windows does a better job of language normalization for the translated edition, but that is purely speculation. Regardless, the Japanese show that they are not afraid to pay for quality in general, so I find it hard to believe that the economic point of owning a PC is the tipping factor.