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17 April 2010

One is a remote archipelago with its own eco-system. The other is an industrialised nation famous for its high-tech creations. The Galapagos Islands and Japan may at first sight seem to have little in common – until a spotlight is cast on the latter’s mobile phone industry.

For decades, Japan’s mobile phone world has churned out a sophisticated repertoire of devices that have flourished domestically but failed to raise even an eyebrow of recognition overseas. Today, as the rest of the world is increasingly seduced by gleaming iPhones, BlackBerrys and Google phones, Japan has been left scratching its head and wondering why there is no Japanese equivalent taking the global market by storm. It is this state of technical isolation that has led to Japan being diagnosed as suffering from a severe dose of so-called “Galapagos syndrome”.

This week, however, there were glimmers of a recovery. Firstly, Sharp, Japan’s biggest mobile phone manufacturer, and Microsoft unveiled a new range of KIN phones to go on sale in the US in May. What is most significant for Japan is not the catchy 21st century concept hooked onto the global craze for social networking: it is the alliance between a Japanese mobile phone manufacturer and an international company, which will give American buyers access to Japan’s sophisticated handsets (in this instance, including touch screens and slide-out key boards).

The new KIN phones mark a potential turning point for Japan’s mobile phone industry, fuelling hopes that further international alliances will follow. A Sharp spokeswoman tells Monocle, “Sharp has been trying to expand the overseas sales of mobile phone for quite some time. Until now, we had very few phones available in the US and Europe. With KIN, we hope to expand our mobile phones in these markets.”

There are further signs of a possible Galapagos syndrome cure. Earlier this month, Japan’s communications ministry announced plans to prevent mobile phone companies programming handsets so that they cannot be used on rival networks.

Perhaps more significantly, the snappily named Post-Galapagos Committee – a gathering of government and mobile phone industry leaders – has been meeting monthly for the past year in a bid to help break Japan’s domestic bubble.

Following a meeting on Thursday, Gerhard Fasol, CEO of Eurotechnology Japan KK and the only non-Japanese committee member, told Monocle, “With a declining birthrate and low economic growth, many of Japan’s leaders are worried about the Galapagos effect. Japan is creating new telecommunication technologies and business models but failing to build global business leveraging this creativity.”

A restructuring of the electronics industry and a shift in conservative business attitudes by employing more foreigners are being discussed, according to Fasol.

These solutions will be elaborated upon next month when the committee will unveil strategies to nurture Japan’s technical industries on an international level. And maybe then, the nation will finally start to be cured of its long-running Galapagos sickness.


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