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Why Some Mobile Users in Japan Are Just Fine with Feature Phones

Simpler devices continue to enjoy significant popularity with older consumers

October 19, 2016 | Mobile

Following a pattern witnessed in developed markets around the world, the majority of Japan’s mobile phone users now own smartphones. But even as many of the country’s mobile users switch over to advanced handsets, a significant portion of the population continues to hold on to older feature phones. What might explain this phenomenon?

Smartphone vs. Feature Phone* User Penetration in Japan, by Age, March 2016 (% of internet users in each group)

As eMarketer’s own estimates reveal, 52.4% of mobile phone users in Japan will own a smartphone in 2016. But this still leaves close to half of the country’s mobile users with less advanced feature phones. Feature phones, known locally as “Garake” or “Galapagos” phones, represent an earlier era of the country’s technological development that predates popular devices like Apple’s iPhone. The concept of Galapagos in this case is a reference to the country’s “one-of-a-kind” mobile devices that are popular in Japan and nowhere else.

Feature phones continue to enjoy particularly high user penetration among consumers in Japan ages 50 and older. According to March 2016 research into penetration of smartphones and feature phones by Yahoo Japan, 60% of internet users ages 60 and older in Japan had a feature phone, as did 45% of internet users ages 50 to 59.

Top 5 Mobile Functions Accessed by Smartphone vs. Feature Phone* Users in Japan, March 2016 (% of respondents)

Several factors may help explain why some consumers in Japan continue to shun smartphones. Some experts speculate that the longer battery life of feature phones may be one explanation, while others suggest that the lower cost of monthly bills is another. Yet another reason may be that mobile users in Japan who prefer feature phones simply don’t use mobile devices to access the internet. According to the same 2016 Yahoo Japan survey, 86% of smartphone users accessed the internet on their device, whereas internet access didn’t even make the list of top feature phone functions among their users.

Consumers’ lack of enthusiasm for smartphones in Japan shows up in other research. According to another August 2016 study, less than 8% of current smartphone owners in Japan said they “would like to buy” Apple’s newest iPhone.

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