I Miss My Japanese Flip Phone

OK, this shit was cool in the early to mid-aughts. (Photo: Getty)
OK, this shit was cool in the early to mid-aughts. (Photo: Getty)

In the fall of 2006, I was a wide-eyed nerd who had just landed in Tokyo for my freshman year of college. There’s a lot of bureaucratic nonsense you have to do when you decide to study abroad long-term, but at the top of my list was getting myself a keitai, or a Japanese mobile phone.

There were a lot of reasons I was excited. First, my shitty U.S. flip phone was godawful. My parents were cheap and they always got me the ugliest Nokias or Motorolas our plan could afford. It died frequently, I couldn’t do much on it, and it mostly was a way for my parents to make sure I wasn’t getting into trouble. (I was.) Japanese mobile phones, however, were freaking awesome.

I'm pretty sure this was my first keitai. If not, it looked an awful lot like this one. (Photo: KDDI)

They could send emails! You could watch TV and YouTube on them! I was not watching a ton of YouTube back then, but you know, maybe I would if my phone was capable of it. You could visit websites! You could pay for drinks at the vending machine and for your train ticket! Some had screens that could flip 180-degrees, morphing them into mini point-and-shoot cameras with photo editing features! Some could even calculate your body fat (allegedly) and had facial or fingerprint recognition! They had GPS navigation!

I lived in a dorm for foreign students and our first few nights, we all huddled together in the common room talking about which phones we would get and with what carrier.

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I listened with rapt attention as my new, more worldly classmates explained the pros and cons of each carrier. NTT DoCoMo, while the most expensive, had the best service. Meanwhile, Vodafone (which would later become Softbank) was the cheap option but had debatably spotty coverage — sort of like what T-Mobile is now. KDDI was purportedly just as good as DoCoMo, but was a bit more reasonable when it came to cost. Also, its phones came in dope colours. I ended up picking a KDDI.

After an hour of bungling through a contract with my flimsy Japanese, I was the proud owner of an electric blue phone with an 8-megapixel camera and one of those screens you could flip around. It had a microSD slot, and if I wanted, I could beam Japanese TV straight to my phone. (I told myself this had great educational use for my Japanese language studies, but I really just wanted to watch game shows.) And don’t get me started on the mobile phone charms and decorative stickers I quickly became addicted to buying.

Texting was also a revelation. Long before chat apps like WhatsApp and LINE introduced stickers, Japanese mobile phones were killing it with pre-programmed kaomoji and emoji. While emoji are ubiquitous now, they weren’t quite as common on phones in 2006. At least, not in the West. It wasn’t until 2006 that Google began converting Japanese emoji to Unicode, and it wasn’t until 2009 that a universal set of 722 characters were officially defined. Conversely, the first set of emoji was created in 1997 for Japanese mobile phones by Softbank — then J-Phone — and were followed up by the familiar 176-character set created by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo in 1999.

A lineup of NTT DoCoMo phones from 2007. (Photo: Getty)

Before my Japanese celly, I was still mostly on basic text-based smileys (XD was my fave), with the occasional kaomoji when I was instant messaging friends on my laptop. But now I had access to culturally handy emoji — I could just type ????to my friends and they’d get that I wanted to meet up at the post office by the station, or ♪(*^^)o∀*∀o(^^*)♪ to toast a friend for acing a test.

I get this all sounds not-that-special, especially since almost everyone has a smartphone now. But the features we now take for granted on US phones didn’t really take hold until the iPhone 3G in 2008. Meanwhile, the 3G networks popped up a whole seven years earlier in Japan, while camera phones were already around by 2000. Contactless NFC payments cropped up in 2004 — that’s 16 years ago! Digital TV streaming was doable in 2005. In 2006, my friends and I were running around Tokyo paying for sodas and train fares with our phones. I wasn’t able to pay for my subway fare with my phone in New York City until late last year, and some bodegas in my neighbourhood still don’t accept NFC payment options.

In the few years before iPhones completely upended mobile phone culture, Japanese phone envy was a real thing. In high school, I had contemplated whether I could convince my parents to let me buy an unlocked one from the shady corners of eBay. (You still can, actually.) But as cool as Japanese phones were, the sad thing was they’d never really work the way they were supposed to in the U.S.

These feature phones suffered from Galapagos syndrome — a term that, if you’ve spent any time in the Japanese tech scene, you know well. Just as the Galapagos islands have unique flora and fauna due to their isolated location, a lot of Japanese tech during this era was hyper-local and ill-suited to overseas markets. Sony’s obsession with proprietary formats is a symptom of Galapagos syndrome. Minidiscs, Memory Sticks, and the PSP-only Universal Media Disc are all examples — though Sony’s early foray into e-readers in Japan were notable too. Sony was one of the first pioneers into e-ink, but in a country full of readers, e-books notoriously failed to catch on. Part of that was a scarcity of content, which was exacerbated by the Japanese publishing industry’s lack of enthusiasm for the medium. It also didn’t help that readers viewed e-readers as a device as a bad cultural fit for Japanese life, or that Sony doubled down on its proprietary LRF format and didn’t support more popular ones like PDF. So Sony’s Librie e-reader may have been released in 2004 — four years before the Kindle — but it failed to catch on.

Ironically, in 2010 Sharp released its Galapagos e-reader — a direct nod meant to flip the script on Galapagos syndrome. But then, Sharp made a big deal about using the proprietary XDMF format which it felt would be perfectly suited to Japanese media. Despite a big marketing push, the device flopped, selling only 30,000 units in the first ten months.

There’s a term — garakei that specifically refers to how Galapagos syndrome contributed to the fall of Japanese feature phones. (It’s a portmanteau of Galapagos and keitai, or mobile phone.)  For example, one major reason these advanced feature phones failed to catch on outside Japan was that manufacturers focused solely on adhering to Japanese telecom standards. One example is i-Mode, a mobile internet service that DoCoMo relied on to create an e-commerce and content portal. You could easily switch between email, sports, the weather, games, and even ticket booking. The thing is, each carrier had their own version of this type of network. KDDI had EZWeb, while Vodaphone had J-Sky (later Softbank Mobile).

I, as a KDDI customer, was most familiar with EZWeb. For starters, for a small fee, it let me access the internet, video chat, watch TV, play movies and games, navigate my surroundings via GPS (the Google Maps wasn’t a thing until 2008), and even make my own ringtone. Another quirk was that my phone had its own email address, which I mostly used to send myself purikura pics straight from the booth.

But i-Mode, EZWeb, and J-Sky were utterly useless outside the country. While i-Mode was adopted by 17 other countries, international mobile phone makers had a hardware problem. In Japan, each feature phone was also designed from scratch for a more bespoke experience, meaning you couldn’t just make one device and sell it both domestically and internationally. Local vendors had to make their own handsets that supported the standard, which ultimately failed.

Still, the same Achilles heel that doomed feature phones internationally made for one of the most seamless gadget experiences of my life — one that even today’s smartphones have yet to fully replicate, though we’re slowly starting to catch up.

Part of that was the symbiotic nature of Japanese life and mobile devices. The seamless, frictionless experience you hear tech giants blather on about? Japan in the mid-2000s felt pretty dang close, even without the multitude of apps we have now. When the iPhone finally came to Japan via an exclusive deal with Softbank, plenty of my Japanese friends scoffed. Why would they get America’s first real smartphone when Japanese phones had been so advanced for so many years? Then, when it became clear the iPhone was a force to be reckoned with, it wasn’t uncommon to see people carrying around two phones on the Tokyo metro — an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, and a Japanese feature phone to get all the Japan-specific features they’d grown accustomed to.

I, too, actually fell into that category for a few years, albeit with an iPod Touch.(What was the point of paying for two phone lines on my entry-level salary?) I didn’t ditch my Japanese phone until 2011, when I finally caved and got an iPhone 4S. Today, garakei are mostly the phones you buy for small children and the elderly.

I won’t argue that the garakei of the early and mid-aughts were better than my iPhone XS Max. I’m not crazy — they’re definitely not and I wouldn’t go back to one for many reasons. But while they may not have had the bells and whistles modern smartphones have, these feature phones were allowed to be weird, quirky, and a just a bit chunky, too. They had spunk. The culture that popped up around them allowed you to express an individuality that just hasn’t translated well to smartphones. Maybe that’s why I find it hard to get super jazzed about the latest iPhone, Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy phones. My phone is now a sleek glass slab and each iteration feels kinda interchangeable. I miss when it was something worth bragging about.