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iPodding in Tokyo

25 March 2007

I recently had the privilege of spending a week in Japan as part of a Columbia Business School trip. I got the chance to explore Tokyo and Kyoto and to visit a host of interesting Japanese companies. There are dozens of interesting phenomena I noticed during this trip (from oddities such as heated toilets to more substantive items like Tokyo’s spectacular subway system or the use of the upper floors of buildings for retail in a way we simply never see in U.S. cities), but narrowing the focus a little, I was struck by a significant difference between the average person in Tokyo and the average New Yorker in a particular area—the portable trappings of music fandom.

One of my favorite activities on vacation, especially when I’m in a place to which I’ve never traveled, is the early-morning jaunt. While others are sleeping off their club-induced hangovers, I am often up at dawn walking the streets before they get too crowded. Sometimes it’s nice to walk to the background of the city’s quiet, early-morning rhythm, but as frequently I select my own soundtrack to accompany my foray. In Tokyo, I often found myself in the city’s beautiful parks and Shinto Shrines. Having THE ALBUM LEAF or MOGWAI on in the background accented the experience.

All of which leads to the meandering point—as I walked along the paths and streets of Japan, I saw many fewer iPods with their telltale white headphones than I’d expect to see in Central Park or on the streets of Soho. After noticing this, I kept my eye out for it on the Tokyo Metro (its subway system), in the Pachinko parlors (a sort of hybrid slot machine and pinball machine), and elsewhere I traveled in Japan. Sure enough—the penetration of Apple’s ubiquitous audio player appeared to be lower in Japan than it is in the U.S. (and upon researching the question, it is, although it is still the leading player in Japan).

I wanted to see why Japanese consumers might be looking elsewhere while we Americans continue to almost exclusively buy iPods (Apple’s U.S. market share is nearly 80%). So I visited Akihabara (“Electric City”), the center of gadget culture in Japan, a country known for having probably the greatest affinity for gadgets in the world. What I saw in both the 10-story electronics department stores like Yodobashi and the tiny storefronts alike was a range of sizes, colors, features, and form factors the likes of which we simply don’t see in the U.S. One of my colleagues on the trip remarked, after we looked at some of these players, that the Japanese design aesthetic seems markedly different. When the iPod was first introduced, its clean lines and minimalist interface took the market by storm in the U.S. I ditched my existing MP3 player for an iPod early on and have never looked back. The intuitiveness of its controls and the, dare I say, Zen-like use of surface buttons were such a joy after the tortured combination of tiny buttons, rocker switches, and the like on the my old MP3 player.

Yet the Japanese market seems to want all those buttons and switches. There seems to be a more-the-merrier approach to controls and features, almost as if the manufacturers just assume that consumers will be able to parse all these choices and will figure out and use the features they want and ignore the rest. How else can you explain an MP3 player that also plays over-the-air television, video games, and looks like the short-wave radio?

I still love my 80 Gb Gen-5.5 iPod. But some of the stuff I saw in Akihabara made me wonder what else might be out there…