Apple appeal in Japan is turning the tables

The appeal of Apple products in Japan isn't noticed much in the States. But it should be.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

The appeal of Apple products in Japan isn't noticed much in the U.S. But it should be, considering the history of U.S. consumer electronics products in that country.

First, some background. I lived in Japan at a time when its companies were the global consumer electronics oligarchs--1983 through 1993. I was there long enough to witness the peak of their power and the inevitable descent.

The hubris of the Japanese at that time was astounding, though the Japanese saw it as simple, hard-earned pride. I witnessed it every day in Japanese industrial newspapers (which I translated, as part of my job at the time), on Japanese TV, and in discussions with Japanese journalists. (I had a lively ongoing discussion with a former editor at Sankei Shimbun--a co-worker at the time.)

Apple's iPad is equated with Perry's black ships.

That attitude manifested itself on Japanese TV in person-on-the-street interviews--a ruse the Japanese media liked to play: "Can you think of an American product that you would like to buy?" People would be stumped, and the appeal--and superiority--of Japanese products would be affirmed.

Conveniently not mentioned--even in more thoughtful analysis of the respective strengths of the two countries' industries beyond consumer electronics--were little things like Boeing aircraft, U.S. medical equipment, U.S. networking and telecommunications equipment, workstations (e.g., those from Sun Microsystems and SGI), and the Intel chips populating Japanese PCs, among thousands of the other examples of U.S. products or licensed U.S. technology.

Japan just saw itself as invincible.

Of course, those heady days for Japan are long gone. We've seen the rise of South Korea as a high-tech consumer giant and its companies as leaders in memory/flash chips, LCDs, and TVs. And we've seen companies in China and Taiwan like Foxconn making everything under the sun, including Apple devices.

Japanese companies, in many cases, are also-rans.

Now to my point. The appeal of the Apple brand in Japan cannot be overstated. The iPhone and iPod strike at the heart of traditional Japanese strengths: small, high-quality consumer gadgets (remember the original Sony Walkman? the Panasonic portable CD player?). This is a segment where U.S. companies had never been players.

And now the iPad has come along. It was released Friday in Japan.

The Japanese-language media has responded, as it usually does, with references to "black ships," or "kurofune". The phrase originally referred to U.S. vessels that arrived in Japan in 1853 under Commodore Matthew Perry. The superior military hardware on those ships coerced the Japanese to trade with America and ended "Sakoku," the 200 years in which Japan limited trading with the outside world to the Chinese and Dutch.

The term "black ships" has since come to mean products or technologies coming (typically) from the U.S. that threaten Japanese companies in some way. In the case of the iPad, for example, traditional Japanese publishers are concerned.

After living through an era when it seemed utterly impossible that a U.S. consumer electronics brand would succeed in Japan, Apple's appeal now is truly surreal for me--and a complete turning of the tables. This is especially the case because Apple is trumping erstwhile consumer electronics king Sony on its home turf. There is no doubt that Akio Morita--Sony's co-founder--would feel dismay but also immediately and innately understand the appeal of the iPhone, iPod, and now the iPad.