iLounge has visited Tokyo, Japan three times over the past three years (see our prior reports here: 2005, 2006), watching the iPod family grow in popularity and visibility as we’ve repeatedly explored the city’s streets and subways. This year’s experiences haven’t been tremendously different from those described in our prior reports, but we wanted to share some of our findings anyway.
The holiday shopping season—yes, there is one in Japan, too—doesn’t feel like it has started yet in Tokyo, as the many Apple and non-Apple shops we’ve visited are devoid of the sort of hyperkinetic activity, noise, and traffic we’ve seen in years past. Apple’s retail stores in the Ginza and Shibuya districts of Tokyo have been low on foot traffic by comparison with the packed California locations we’re accustomed to; scattered shoppers have been checking out new iPod models and accessories, but not fawning over the latest Macintosh computers or the Leopard Mac OS X operating system. A lot of the iPod shoppers here are clearly outsiders—vacationers from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand—but the majority are locals.
What domestic interest there is here in iPods is considerable, but appears to be firmly focused on users 30 and younger. We see white earbuds almost everywhere we look, many if not most of them the newer late 2006 earphones Apple packed in with nanos and later fifth-generation iPods. But what’s connected to them is almost invariably hidden away in a pocket, not to be seen, and there are now lots of other white earbuds that look like Apple’s, but aren’t, connected to miniature OLED-screened alternatives to the iPod shuffle. Yes, we’ve seen a couple of shuffles (old and new) being worn around, but on the rare occasions when people pop their iPods out of their jackets, they’re nanos—older ones—and it is obvious that video still hasn’t taken off on the iPods here as it has elsewhere.
Over several days of active looking, we’ve seen only one person using an iPod touch in public, and one other person watching video on a fifth-generation iPod. Apple TVs are in stores, but attracting no interest, and video accessories are all but impossible to find here. One Apple reseller had a collection of items such as Sonic Impact’s Video-55 off in a corner display window, but as was the case before, Apple’s just not pushing video accessories at all. They, like other stores here, are focusing heavily on selling cases, earphones, and speakers.
That doesn’t mean that the Japanese aren’t interested in portable video devices. To the contrary, we’ve been seeing lots of people watching video on their cell phones, thanks to new, higher-quality, orientation-flipping LCD displays that are appearing in many models. If there’s anything that’s patently obvious from this visit, it’s that Apple really needs a cell phone—most likely something different from the current iPhone, which is not being sold in Japan—to win its next mindshare upgrade here. Flip-style phones are extremely popular, and it’s highly common to see people here listening to one device with a pair of earphones while accessing the Internet with their phones. Women do this even more commonly than men, who are reading newspapers and magazines, or playing games on Nintendo DS systems. By contrast, there’s basically no use of large iPhone-style phones here, and on the occasions when we’ve taken ours out, no one has even cocked a curious stare.
Is Apple becoming passe in Japan? Hardly, but it does feel like it is cooling off a little. In Akihabara, the city’s best-known electronics shopping district, some (but not all) of the highly prominent first-floor iPod displays we’ve previously seen trickling out to the streets have disappeared, shifting into less prominent areas of the stores as mobile phones and cameras have taken their places. Being relegated to an off-street floor in a Tokyo shop isn’t always a bad thing: one of Apple vendor Ishimaru’s stores has created a cool black fourth floor suite for Mac and iPod products, which looks nicer to our eyes than Best Buy’s dedicated Mac areas. The only issue is that you now have to figure out how to find that floor, whereas previously the iPod gear was right in the front of the store by an entrance.
The quantity of iPod-focused advertising also appears to have gone down a tick. On a positive note, Bose has a decent campaign running on billboards and in subway advertisements for the SoundDock Portable, featuring matching iPod classic models in a move reminiscent of past SoundDock and iPod ads we’ve see here. But aside from videos or signs we’ve seen at Apple and reseller stores, we haven’t seen much about the new iPods themselves—perhaps Apple has a reason to wait? Or perhaps it’s just not spending as aggressively this year.
Third-parties continue to have a different mix of products in Japan, and different players dominate local stores. Popular U.S. brands such as Griffin, DLO, and XtremeMac have very little apparent shelf presence. Belkin, JBL/Harman, and Logitech—here, called Logicool—are all over, along with local players such as Elecom, Power Support, Simplism, Radius, and Logitec—a different company. Logitec has a compact, $150 retro-styled speaker called the LDS Ri500 in many stores here, while Onkyo’s Wave Radio-styled CD player-slash-iPod speaker dock CBX-Z10 ($400) is also conspicuous.
Most striking is how massive Audio Technica’s presence is in the Japanese headphone and earphone market. No matter where you go, their models are there, often outstripping Sonys, Elecoms, and other brands for sheer floor space and presence. It is obvious that U.S. brands such as Shure and v-moda are continuing to work to attract similar attention, but they just don’t have the range of models offered by A-T; the same company also offers a number of unusual and interesting iPod-matching, but not iPod-specific speakers.
It’s also worth noting that while iPod-specific earphones are uncommon, Radius was offering these interesting nano lanyard earphones in 2G-matching colors. They were the exception; headphones are almost entirely device-agnostic, and generally lead into what stores commonly use as an area to offer both iPods and competing products.
Radius also bucked the trend by offering a nano-specific remote control, the RadRemote; competing remotes continue to be iPod-agnostic and surprisingly unsophisticated. Display remotes are nowhere to be found, most likely because of the too-high cost of actually producing them under the Made for iPod program.
Princeton, which often rebadges other brands’ speakers under its own label here, has a fairly ubiquitous second-generation iPod shuffle cube speaker here called Cuby ($35)—one of a number of iPod-shuffle products (mostly off-brand cases) we haven’t seen before, though as in the United States there seems to be little interest in them here.
New-in-box but discontinued and discounted original silver iPod shuffles are selling here for $60; there aren’t any great deals to be had here on other iPod models. Top-end iPod touches sell at a $27 premium over U.S. prices, which is cheap by British standards, not elsewhere.
Certain off-brands of cases aside, it’s unusual to see accessories here that aren’t widely sold in the United States. This Timex iControl watch with the ability to remote control an iPod wasn’t being sold in many stores that we could find—perhaps because of its $200 asking price—but Yodobashi Camera had it on display in their watch section.
Much more conspicuous: cases for the new iPods. Almost every store is stocking third-generation iPod nano cases from SwitchEasy, Power Support, and brands better-known here than elsewhere, such as Brighton, Elecom, and Ray-Out. The latter company is even bundling iPod wall chargers with its cases, a major difference from the U.S. where chargers are typically as expensive as cases, thanks mostly to the presence of included cables with Apple-licensed Dock Connectors.
On that note, it’s interesting to see that Apple appears to be on a mini-campaign to educate Asia about the concept of paying to be an iPod accessory vendor. We spotted this “Authorised Dock Connector” sticker on a Belkin product, along with a warning that “Unauthorised Dock Connector may damage your iPod.”
Used iPods continue to be available in a few stores. The prices aren’t amazing, but if you’re looking for a place to buy a gold iPod mini, you have a better chance here than anywhere outside of eBay.
There are also shelves full of old Mac computers at prices higher than eBay’s, though you do get the chance to inspect your purchase prior to making it.
Other little differences? There are still some slight variations in product names, thanks to different domestic trademarks or naming customs—for instance, JBL’s On Tour is the “On Station” here. And then there are the iTunes Cards. It’s almost worth purchasing one of these in a “5000” or “10000” denomination just to give as a gift to a shocked recipient.
We’ll have more iPod and accessory news from Asia in our next report, coming soon.