I was 23 years old the first time I visited Japan. It also happened to be the first time I had traveled outside of the US, and as a result I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a pretty fascinating place, a country of strange customs, great food, and technology that blew me away.
Those were the early 2000s, and back then the Japanese were light-years ahead of the U.S. in computing — particularly in mobile and portable devices. This is probably what struck me the most as I wandered around Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood for the first time.
For a tech geek like me, visiting Akihabara was like making a pilgrimage to some sort of hardware Mecca. There, in one spot, you could find any number of electronics that wouldn’t make their way to my part of the world for years, if at all. I was surrounded by Sony laptops that were impossibly small for the hardware specs they were touting, but the difference in mobile technology was truly astounding.
While people in the U.S. were stuck using monochromatic Motorola flip phones, the Japanese took advantage of devices with large, full-color displays. And five years before an iPhone connected to its first 3G network, Japanese consumers had access to streaming video and other “advanced” communications services.
I remember thinking at the time that I was taking a peek into the future.
Since then, I’ve taken a few trips back to Japan, but I hadn’t been there since the launch of the iPhone. I remember in one visit, sometime in the 2007/2008 timeframe, noticing a lot more of Apple’s signature white earbuds being worn around town, but Japanese tech was still omnipresent everywhere I went.
Last fall during a week in Tokyo, I took another trip out to Akihabara and was amazed by how much things had changed. Or rather, how much they hadn’t changed.
The big electronics stores were still there, but the products featured weren’t nearly as advanced as I’d remembered. In fact, the best consumer electronics I could buy in Japan weren’t all that different than the best consumer electronics products I’d find in the U.S.
Whereas Sony, Toshiba, and other local tech companies had dominated the local laptop and mobile phone market during that first trip, the hottest new products I saw people using were built by folks like Apple. iPhones and Android devices were everywhere.
So what changed? Even before the rise of the iPhone, it was obvious that the Japanese economy and the tech ecosystem there were both in decline. While they held a significant technological advantage for years, they weren’t able to capitalize on it.
But clearly the rise of new operating systems led by Google and Apple, as well as the move from ‘online’ to ‘mobile’ signaled a major shift in the way people interacted with technology.
If there’s one nice thing about that shift, it’s that I now regularly get to play with some of the coolest tech that is out there — and usually not long after it is released.
Except for the toilet seats. The Japanese are still decades ahead of the U.S. in toilet seat technology.