Japan was one of the earliest countries to widely adopt phones that could access the internet. But a funny thing has happened there: sales of smartphones have taken a dive. Instead, Japanese consumers are flocking to older styles of cellphone — like the venerable flip-phone.
According to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, sales of what have been dubbed “gara-kei,” a catchall term for the style of simple screen-keypad cellphone popular before the iPhone, are rising for the first time in seven years. About half of people with cellphone contracts in Japan use gara-kei, which means “Galapagos phone” — a nod to how they have evolved for a peculiarly Japanese market. The phones can have email and basic internet access, with many using the old-school flip design.
Sales of gara-kei increased 5.7 percent over 2014, with smartphone sales, by contrast, falling for a second straight year. The big question, of course, is why.
Forbes’ Jake Adelstein, a veteran Japan correspondent, thinks price is part of the story. But he also proposes two other possible explanations. First, Japan has a low birth rate and a large elderly population. Older people might be less likely to use fancy smartphone features as opposed to simple calling and texting, so as the country ages, smartphone use may decline.
According to Gartner, a leading market research firm, smartphones sales shot up worldwide in 2014. But in December 2014, the firm reported that western Europe was an exception: smartphone sales were down by 5.2 percent, and had declined for three straight quarters. That’s pretty consistent with Adelstein’s theory: if the decline in smartphone use is about aging populations and fatigue with smartphones’ most annoying features, then western Europe is the next logical place to look after Japan.
Two is better than one
While contract renewals may have made up the bulk of the increased demand for flip phones, there’s also a segment of Japanese consumers buying flip phones as a second mobile device.
Take 41-year-old professor Antonio Formacion, for example, who recently purchased a Sharp flip phone to supplement his Samsung Galaxy 5 device.
Having two phones – one for voice and the other for data – works out much cheaper, Formacion said.
“I’m now using two phones. One flip phone from Softbank that has a monthly bill of 2,000 yen which includes unlimited calls to any phone in Japan. And the second phone a Galaxy S5 for data only for 980 yen a month. Previously I was averaging around 9,000 yen a month on my iPhone 5,“ he said.
Formacion says having two phones makes him feel more secure: “I know that important calls will reach me even though my smart phone is already dead.”
For those of you who don’t remember, once upon a time Japan was the world leader in mobile phones. Long before the iPhone, Japanese cell phones had already been surfing the net for years. Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Docomo released a mobile Internet surfing service called i-mode in 1999 that were accessed by cell phones that were way advanced beyond their time. While Japanese people were playing games, surfing the web, and even watching television on sleek flip phones, their counterparts in the United States were still making calls and punching out texts on tiny screens.
The old style Japanese phones are now referred to as ガラケイ(garakei)—a compound word from Galapagos and 携帯電話 (keitai denwa) aka mobile phone. They were dubbed Galapagos phones because of how comparable they were to life on the isolated Galapagos Islands. Like garakei in Japan, the animals and the flora on the Galapagos were unique to the island and couldn’t be found anywhere else.
// At the times I used to be envious of Japanese phones and networks (and never understood why it never arrived to Europe), that permitted them to browse a strange curious phone enabled ‘net and send/receive emails. There was this whole strange cellphone culture there. (with its novels for reading on cellphones, etc.)
Not too long ago i even tried to find a cool model of flip-phone to use here…
I would still be up for a cool flip-phone design with which i could browse the net even basically, read twitter, maybe listen to my music (although there are now cheap MP3 walkmans that can take 32 or 64gb of music on a microSD card and read every format. I bought one recently for 25€ and changed the firmware). And as for the photos, well, i don’t mind the super lower res photos sometimes, i even like the super low res photos in some way, and if i really want to take photos i have a hundred cameras at disposal.