iPod Overseas Report: Tokyo, Japan

Read Parts II, III, and IV: iPod Overseas Report: Singapore, iPod Overseas Report: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Backstage:// Asian Gadgetry and the Future of iPod.

Uniforms are mandatory for many of Japan’s 127 million citizens, including and perhaps especially the 12 million who live in Tokyo, the country’s most populous and densely populated city. Subway cars are literally and famously packed by these residents during peak travel hours, each person having no more room than his or her body physically requires. Any observer’s eye is first drawn to a sea of schoolgirls in matching skirts and jackets, men and boys in suit-like work and school uniforms, and even the occasional woman in a kimono, required attire in a more rigid era.

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Then the differences in the crowd begin to emerge: the shocks of highlighted blonde hair, the backpacks and bags, and the things on and in their ears. As in New York, the occasional young man can be found with a pair of large over-the-ear headphones, listening to who knows which electronic device in his pocket. But for us, the real surprise is the presence of white cords and matching earbuds – distinctly Apple’s, specifically those included as pack-ins with every iPod.

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They’re not just occasional: on crowded subways throughout the day, they’re far more common than should be expected in this notoriously picky population, which is especially tough on even the most hotly demanded American consumer products. Microsoft’s Xbox 360, an instant sellout in every American store, sits all but ignored in Tokyo’s, already mildly discounted in some. Yet iPods old and new can be found everywhere here, more conspicuous today than the Sony MiniDisc and CD players that once dominated the country.

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How popular is the iPod, really? There’s a palpable difference between Tokyo, and say, Paris, where iPod advertisements are ubiquitous, but iPods themselves are not. You see iPod earbuds in ears, plus advertisements for both iPods and accessories: Bose’s SoundDock, for instance, has been advertised on a month-long campaign in the subways highlighting its compatibility with both iPod 5G and nano. We’re told that it’s as popular here as in the United States, maintaining a strong lead over lower-priced competitors.

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There are also other telling signs. Opening up the box for his ceramic white Sony PSP at a table next to us at popular donut chain Mister Donut, a Japanese man we did not know admired its shine and turned it on for the first time. “It looks like an iPod,” said his friend, chuckling, and oblivious to our presence. That any Apple electronics product could randomly become a reference point for any Sony product in this country says more than most Westerners realize: even those who don’t buy iPods here know what they are, and see Sony as a stylistic copycat.

Major Retailers

Other than ads and its presence in the hands of actual people, the real sign of the iPod’s popularity is in stores: from high-end Ginza to trendy Shibuya and electronics mecca Akihabara, big chains and small stores alike, the iPod and its accessories receive exceptional, first-floor placement, a rarity in a country where space is at a premium and “portable audio departments” of stores are typically several floors up from ground level. iPod displays are frequently near store entrances, and sometimes found on multiple floors, such as Yodobashi Camera Akihabara’s huge centralized collection of iPods and accessories on the first floor, followed by two separate collections of products on the fourth floor, one near Apple’s competitors, and one away from them.

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The displays are robust. Dedicated sections are set aside for iPod cases, headphones, speakers, and other electronic accessories, with a wide variety of no-frills cable and car options alongside better-known brands. Prices are generally comparable to those in the United States – Apple accessories, nearly to the dollar, with some third party accessories a bit higher. XtremeMac’s AirPlay2, for instance, sells for a whopping $15 premium over its $60 US price, but is at present the only big label FM transmitter available here for the fifth-generation iPod and nano.

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In Apple Stores, which apparently receive the lion’s share of the country’s iPods, and also first shipments of the newest and most choice accessories, iPod products are found on every floor: the country’s flagship store in Ginza has three separate collections of iPods and accessories, with some of the most popular items on the first floor, “solution” items next to what is apparently the world’s first iPod Bar, an iPod-specific version of Apple’s Genius Bars, and then a huge collection of “everything else” on the top floor.

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The two-floor shop in Shibuya (shown immediately above), by comparison, has only two iPod sections, more tightly focused on key hardware. Most of the customers in these stores are Japanese, but some are foreigners, a fact catered to by Apple’s sales of both Japanese and English-language software.


Occasionally, you’ll notice familiar accessories under different names: in Japan, Logitech is Logicool; the AirPort Express is known as AirMac Express; and both Griffin and DLO’s FM transmitters are numbered – iTrip2, iTrip3, DLO TransPod Digital 2 and 3. Imagine that; a country where it’s easy to identify which product you’re buying by its name.

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You’ll also occasionally see or hear about something from a major manufacturer that hasn’t made its way yet to the US, such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM11. Planned for a sub-$100 price point in the USA, Japanese retailers are selling the least expensive Altec iPod docking speaker system to date for only a little bit more – about $105.

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What else is different in Japan? Indigenous accessories. Power Support, maker of iPod cases, protective film, and car accessories, maintains a very dominant position across all of the stores we visited. Fifth-generation iPod cases not yet released or even announced in the United States are already selling out in Japanese stores, black silicone rubber models taking the lead over frosted clear versions. American companies, such as Speck Products, are less represented in these stores than we’d expected, with better placement in smaller non-Apple locations.

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Similarly, a distributor’s catalog shows that Tunewear has a number of cases that haven’t been announced in the United States: the robotic Prie Robo for iPod nano, the fashionable studded TuneTagStuds for iPod nano, and Prie Jewel, a series of blinged-out cases. In the same catalog, a company called Tune-Up is marketing RoboArm Link S, a set of iPod speakers that fold up for storage or open to form robot-like arms for your iPod. And Audio-Technica has a pair of champagne glass-like speakers called the ATD-SP300, which provide rich sound in a sleek set of enclosures. White and black versions are available; white are the ones we’ve seen many times here alongside iPods.

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Japanese accessories aren’t necessarily all meant for major retailers: some are created specifically for niche audiences. Amadana, for instance, has developed the PE-117 Earphone, the first earphones we’ve seen that would compliment Miniot’s iWood cases for iPod nano and 5G. It’s a bamboo-laden headset apparently based on Audio-Technica’s ATH-EC7 design, featuring a pivoting arm that lets you customize the shape to the size of your ear. Strong in bass, they look and feel unique, and can only be found outside the country at the occasional importer.

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There was another surprise, as well: discount bins. While not common for the iPod, these fixtures of Akihabara life were a welcome sight to our eyes, as discontinued or unpopular major brand accessories – particularly for the iPod shuffle – fell to more reasonable prices. Cases were going for under $5, for instance, and electronic accessories for under $10. As an aside, it was hard to ignore the fact that the iPod shuffle’s presence has been dramatically trivialized here: with the exception of a couple of small floor displays, it has largely disappeared from local stores, with very little representation even in Apple’s own locations. iPod nano appears to be the strongest local object of desire, with the fifth-generation iPod less so, and shuffle a very, very distant third. Those we spoke with outside of Apple Stores expected that something new would replace the current shuffle in the near future.

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We hope you enjoyed this look at the iPod world in Tokyo, Japan; for our previous coverage of the Japanese accessories market, check out iLounge Loves Japan, our photo feature showing off wild inventions from earlier this year. Want to contribute a report from your city? E-mail jeremy (at) iLounge.com. Otherwise, we will look forward to your comments.