Using a smartphone as a visitor to Japan

I just landed in Narita and came to my friend’s apartment in Koenji, Tokyo last night, coming to Japan for the first time since I finished graduate school last March, and for the very first time as a tourist and not a resident.

I had been looking at the options for having at least some basic mobile phone service, as I have been able to arrange cheaply in every other country I have previously visited, but the solutions in Japan are less straightforward, or at least less obvious. (On a tangent, this article about the state of Internet access in the remote island territory of American Samoa is pretty neat.) I DID find an option that works well, but it took a little bit of poking around and some minor hoops.

For example, in Taiwan I had no trouble getting a prepaid SIM card by showing my passport, here in the US (somewhat surprisingly, with all the Patriot Act and related security in recent years) you can still buy a prepaid phone or SIM, and on my first visit to the Philippines I actually got a SIM card out of a vending machine! While it has always1 been easy for a resident foreigner to sign up for a mobile phone contract, the providers will quite understandably not offer a one or two year contract to somebody who is only legally allowed to remain in the country for 90 days.

While Japan has long had perhaps the best wireless communications infrastructure in the world, it also has some of the least flexible ways to register for service. While prepaid SIM cards for voice and/or data are the norm, or at least commonly available, in most countries, such options are far more limited in Japan, and those that do exist tend to be unavailable to temporary visitors.((Prepaid service is very widely available in the US, for both voice and data, and although still not very popular overall is gaining fast in popularity.)) Options for international data plans do exist, but even the better deals fall between pretty expensive and ruinously expensive. (The NY Times just had a post discussing some other options.)

Prepaid phone service does exist, offered  companies such as au or Softbank, but for some bizarre reason these are still structured as one year contracts, and are therefore also not available to visitors. For example, if you look at Softbank’s page explaining how to register for pre-paid service, it clearly states that one needs either proof of Japanese citizenship or visa that has over 90 days remaining. It is certainly possible for a visitor to have a friend in Japan to arrange service for them, but that is not only kind of a hassle for both parties, but also may not be an option for visitors who do not (yet?) have friends in the country.

Perhaps the most popular option for foreign tourists is Softbank’s Global Rental service, which will rent either a Japanese phone or a SIM card for use with an unlocked 3G phone. The prices for this service are not too egregious for very light use, with a bare SIM costing for ¥105/day, ¥105 per minute for outgoing calls, and ¥15 per domestic SMS. Incoming calls and texts are free, like in basically every country outside of North America. Data, however, is another matter. Although Softbank thankfully caps the data charge for a single day to ¥1500, it takes only slightly more than 1 megabyte to reach that level, which means that any smartphone that sees even minimal use will incur ¥1605/day, plus whatever you spend on phone calls or texts. I don’t know about you, but ¥48,150+ seems like a lot to pay for one month of using my smartphone on a trip to Japan.

But there is a much, much better option.

Enter B-Mobile. B-Mobile is a MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which means that in contrast to wireless service providers such as NTT Docomo, KDDI AU or Softbank, they do not own any infrastructure of their own but instead purchase access to a wireless network at the wholesale level from the physical network providers, in this case from Docomo, and then re-sell it to retail customers in packages that the original network provider does not offer.

As soon as I stepped off the airport bus outside Shinjuku Station I walked across the street to Bic Camera and asked the first staff member I saw in the mobile phone area where the B-Mobile products were. She had no idea what I was talking about, and after running to check told me that they didn’t have any (申し訳ございませんが、当店では取り扱っておりません), but I suspected she was wrong and asked a man in a spiffier uniform. He immediately took me over to the counter and grabbed a box from the shelf behind it. For those looking to purchase these SIM cards in a store, note that they do not seem to be on display; you have to find someone who knows where they are kept in the back. I chose the 1GB/1 month 3G/4G option, for just under ¥3500, and purchased it along with an external battery pack for my phone.

Note that it is possible to order these SIMs online, using either a credit card or by COD means Cash On Delivery, which is something that used to be possible for mail order products, but now is pretty much restricted to delivery food. Japan is actually safe enough that when I ordered a ¥100,000 digital camera from Amazon some years back they let me pay COD.">COD) The downside of this, for many foreigners, is that the page is only in Japanese, as is the activation directions. If you do not read and speak Japanese, you may need someone else to help with ordering and configuring the setup.

Before I explain the annoying caveats, I will state upfront that it works great once configured, so you know this isn’t a waste of time.

I stepped out of the store and grabbed a coffee and a seat at the Starbucks just below. Popping the SIM card into my phone, an unlocked GSM/HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus and rebooting it did not give me any immediate results, only showing the notification screen message “EMERGENCY CALLS ONLY [NTT DOCOMO]”, which I had even with my American T-Mobile SIM installed.

After looking at the packaging I realized that it needed to be activated by phone, but this presented a minor obstacle. For some reason, the activation can be done one of two ways, either by calling from a Japanese mobile phone, or by calling a help-desk and paying a ¥2,500 handling fee. I nearly considered doing the latter just to get going… but the helpdesk closes at 6pm, an hour earlier.

I then switched tactics slightly and pulled out my laptop, a recently purchased 15” Retina Macbook Pro, to try the Starbucks WiFi. I was under the impression that it was a pay service as it had been years before, and was ready to begrudgingly spend a few hundred yen to get online for an hour, but was pleased to see that they have switched to a free service at some point. I was much less happy to see, however, that in order to use the free Starbucks WiFi, you have to register for a login account, which cannot be done from the login page. Yes, that’s right. To use the free WiFi you have to register in advance while already connected to the Internet. For your reference, the address for doing this is http://starbucks.wi2.co.jp. Do yourself a favor and register right now, even if you don’t expect to be using it anytime soon. Thankfully I was sitting next to a young Japanese fellow in a standard black suit, who was kind enough to lend me his smartphone for a minute to register myself an account and get online.

After I had both my laptop and phone connected to the free WiFi, I found a Japan-resident friend on Gchat and asked her to use her mobile phone to call and register my B-Mobile SIM, providing her with the unique registration code included on a slip of cardboard. Make sure not to lose that! (Incidentally, the SIM itself is a DOCOMO card, with B-Mobile branding used only on the packaging.) I suppose I could have done that call with the phone I borrowed from my Starbucks neighbor, but with the mention of a ¥2500 surcharge for using the helpdesk, I figured it would be rude to risk some unexpected charge on the phone bill going to a total stranger, rather than a friend I can repay in the event that it happens.

After spending another half-hour or so at the Starbucks before I was able to get in touch with the friend whose apartment in Kouenji I am staying at in Tokyo there was still no indication that my SIM card had been activated, even after rebooting again. It was on some pretty solid WiFi, so I was unsurprised to maintain Internet service for a little while after leaving the Starbucks, but when I glanced at my phone to check the time while waiting for the train and noticed that it appeared to still be signed into Gchat I was rather confused.

You see, although the phone appeared to have no mobile network service, it was in fact connected, and may very well have been connected the entire half-hour I spent waiting in the cafe. Very weirdly, it has a constant notification saying “NO SERVICE: Selected network (DOCOMO) unavailable”, while also constantly showing zero bars for my mobile network connection. And this is despite having a perfectly good Internet connection, even good enough for me to make and receive Skype calls.

Presumably this is because the OS, configured as it is for a phone rather than a tablet, is puzzled by an account that has data service, but is not allowed to place or receive calls, and therefore fails to display the proper indicator. This surprised me, as the same Android OS is also running on tablets, such as the Nexus 7, that also support SIM cards and HSPA+ data connections. Presumably on a Nexus 7 or similar device the mobile network indicator properly indicated when it is connected, and doesn’t harass you about not having voice service, so I wonder if there may be a way to tweak the phone version to fix this minor bug. After all, it is a little bit annoying not knowing whether or not you are connected until you try and access the Internet and either succeed or fail.

One final note for now is that this particular card provides 1GB of data or one month of service, which ever comes first. 1GB may not sound like all that much, but Android 4.x has extremely good tools for tracking and limiting your data usage, and if you are sensible enough to streaming media or file downloads while not connected to WiFi, I would not be at all surprised to see 1GB last for an entire month.

  1. At least since the first time I was in Japan, in 2002. []

Why I don’t have an iPad: Son-san, are you out there somewhere?

I want one, and I’m willing to pay for a data plan. But Softbank will not give it to me.

I have used a Softbank iPhone for a while now—since July 2009, to be precise. Softbank has generally been pretty good to me. When the iPhone 4S came out, they essentially upgraded my iPhone 3GS for free in exchange for a two-year contract extension, and I was happy to take that offer. And their “packet-hodai” deals have been a very cost-effective way to stay in touch while traveling, often coming out cheaper than using hotel wi-fi.

When the new iPad was released last month, and Softbank offered a sweet deal for the 4G model (no money down, and less than 3,000 yen per month for up to 100 MB of data), it seemed like a good time to break down and buy one. I switched job functions a few months ago and now have to do quite a bit of traveling and client presentations, so having a nice big portable Retina display would be more useful than ever.

So I started my online application on the evening of March 18. The application is quite long. I had to input all my information (which Softbank already had) and agree to a few different lengthy form contracts.

Finally they asked for my credit card information, which I duly entered.

“ERROR: The name on your credit card must match the name on your application.”

I knew that my middle name was on my Softbank account, so I had entered my middle name on the first screen of the application. But my credit cards don’t have my middle name. Figuring that was the problem, I canceled the application and re-entered everything without my middle name. This time my credit card was accepted.

Two days later, I received a link to upload a scan of my identification. I started by trying my driver’s license. The upload had to be a JPG, and the scanner at work only produces PDFs, so I scanned a PDF, took a snapshot in Acrobat, and pasted it into Windows Paint.

A few minutes later I got another email. “Your ID has been rejected because it does not match the name on your application.”

Doh! Must be because it has my middle name on it.

Next try. My health insurance card does not have my middle name. Neither does my credit card. And health insurance card plus credit card is listed as an acceptable combination. So I scanned, copied, pasted, saved, and uploaded again.

A few minutes later I got another email. “Your ID has been rejected because it does not match the name on your application.”

I growled, picked up my phone and called customer service. After 15 minutes on hold I finally got to an agent and explained what had happened.

“OK,” she said. “I have your phone number. Can you confirm the name on your account?”

I gave her my name.

“Um,” she said, “that’s not the name on the account.”

I explained that my original account had a middle name on it but that I couldn’t use it while applying through the website. She put me on hold for a few minutes.

“Can you upload ID without your middle name on it?”

“Like I said, I already tried that.”

She put me on hold for a few more minutes.

“So… you tried using ID with your middle name, and then without your middle name?”

“YES,” I said.

She put me on hold for a few more minutes.

“OK, what you need to do is go to a Softbank store and request a change of name…”

I hung up on her and fumed on Facebook. One friend suggested that I complain to Masayoshi Son on Twitter. And I did, which sort of made me feel better. He never replied, though.

At that point I was willing to give up on my iPad dreams, but the deal still seemed too good to pass up. So on Friday, March 24, I walked up the street to the nearest Softbank store and told them I wanted an iPad. The guy at the counter checked my ID, asked for my mobile number, and produced a one-page printed application for me to sign.

“Is everything in this application correct?”

That’s when I noticed that my name was screwed up: the space between my first and middle names was in the wrong place.

“Well… that’s how it was entered in our system. I guess it was probably an error when they set up your account.”

I sighed. “I would have noticed it then. But OK. Can you still process the application?”

“Sure we can.”

“OK. And how long will it take to actually get an iPad?”

“Something like a week, probably. We will call you when it’s ready.”

The next week passed without a call. Yesterday (Monday), I tweeted Softbank customer service asking if there was any way to check the status of the request. They promptly responded that they had no way of checking and that I needed to take it up with the Softbank store.

So I went back to the Softbank store today, gave them my name and asked for a status update. The lady at the counter went into the back for a few minutes and then returned.

“We don’t know what the status is.”

“You have no idea how long it will take?”

“There is a huge backlog. It could easily take a month,” she said. “We request the iPad from Softbank, Softbank requests it from Apple, and there are probably some other steps involved as well.”

Seriously? Is it so hard to take my money and give me a product?

I am tempted to cancel the application and buy a Wi-Fi model at the store, but I know that I will want access to mobile data from time to time. Not enough to warrant a full-blown e-Mobile subscription, though. That’s the most frustrating part of this experience. Why can’t Softbank get its act together?

Japanese Kindle

Having now moved back and forth several times between my home in the US and Kyoto or Taipei, on the other side of the world in East Asia, it has become clear to me that dealing with books is the biggest pain in the ass. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am both a congenital book hoarder and (although not at this exact moment) a graduate student. After the most recent move home, after graduating from my Masters program in March of last year, I decided that purchasing a Kindle would be the best way to reduce the amount of weight that my future self will be sending across the sea when the need arises.

And I do love the Kindle, and Amazon’s service in general. (I should mention here that my father owns some Amazon stock, which has benefited me, but that the investment is based on enthusiasm for the company’s service, rather than shilling in order to promote the company.) I happen to have the 3G keyboard model, and the e-ink screen is a wonderful replacement for paper books, even if not quite as good. I do also use the Kindle app on my phone when the Kindle device is not with me, and it is surprisingly comfortable to read books the large screen of my Galaxy Nexus. And the service has been fantastic; when I accidentally broke my Kindle’s screen, Amazon customer support sent me a new one no questions asked. This clearly because Amazon’s priority is very different from that of a consumer electronic company whose profit comes from the hardware itself, who would be happier persuading you to pay for a new unit, or at least repair costs, for breaking a non-defective unit; rather than even asking if I had broken it, they seemed more concerned in getting me a new Kindle ASAP, so that I could resume paying them for content.

Unfortunately, however, the Kindle Store does not include Japanese books. However, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that Amazon would be launching the Kindle in Japan later this year, with Japanese language e-books from Japanese publishers. Apparently they will be launching with the current generation of e-ink devices, rather than the Kindle Fire Android tablet, but since I personally prefer both the readability and long battery life of the e-ink devices I don’t think this is a problem. Anyway, Amazon already sells the “International” Kindle in Japan, so the key here is that Japanese e-books will be available in the store, which will then be usable on existing hardware, including the Kindle app on iOS, Android, and OSX or Windows computers.

The big question for me, however, is how the different national stores will interact. Will it be possible to purchase Japanese books from my Amazon.com account, using my American credit card? If not, will it be possible to use, say, a Japanese debit card linked to my Shinsei bank account? Or will I have to resort to the more convoluted maneuvers required for some international online media stores, by purchasing Japanese Kindle books through my Amazon.co.jp account, and then switching the currently logged-in account on my Kindle to that when I want to read a Japanese title? I do know that Amazon has already localized the Kindle for Italian, Spanish, with Brazilian Portuguese also launching later this year, so I am wondering if anybody reading this knows how it currently handles juggling purchases from more than one country store?

Now, despite the fact that the rumored Kindle Japan store will (presumably) not be launched for a few months, there is still one major source of Japanese e-books usable for it today. Many readers are probably already familiar with Aozora Bunko, a repository for public domain Japanese literature, roughly similar to the primarily English language Project Gutenberg. Since the Kindle software—that is, the OS on the Kindle device, not just the app for other platforms—has included support for East Asian text for some time, it can display Aozora Bunko text files with no problem. Well, there is ONE problem. You see, while perfectly readable, the current text file viewer only displays text in the same left-to-right horizontal lines that you are reading this blog in. While it certainly no challenge to read Japanese in this format, it just doesn’t feel right for literature, which is still universally printed in horizontal lines, and read from right-to-left.

Luckily there is a solution: an online utility called Aozora Kindoru, which generates PDFs formatted in literature style vertical columns for the Kindle screen (they will also work great on any other device with PDF support and a similarly sized screen), and even properly formats any furigana present in the original file. I was first alerted to this utility via a Twitter user, and here are two English blogs with instructions, although I imagine that anybody who would be reading any of the old stuff on Aozora Bunko can figure out the Japanese directions with no problem. [Link 1] [Link 2]

As a final note, it appears that the Nook, from Barnes and Noble, is also planning to introduce international versions, including Japanese. While looking for jobs, I ran across a posting for an “International Content Manager” for Nook, the duties of which involve:

The Manager, International Content Acquisition will have previous experience working with publishers around the world and should be familiar with each territory’s publishing industry.  Candidates should be familiar with the latest developments in digital publishing.  Ideal candidates must have business level command, speaking and writing, of English and at least one other language.

and the job requirements for include:
Professional, spoken and written fluency in English as well as one of these languages is required:  German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian.

This actually surprises me a bit, as one of the reasons I decided to go with Kindle rather than Nook in the first place (aside from my history with the company) was that I expected from that beginning that Amazon, a country with a strong presence in Japan, would eventually introduce a Japanese language store, while I was doubtful that Barnes and Noble, a company with no history that I am aware of operating in foreign language markets, would do likewise. I am happy to be proven wrong. Incidentally, I have yet to see this move by B&N reported anywhere, but I think the job posting is pretty clear evidence, although if they are currently recruiting for these positions it would seem likely that they are not as close as Amazon to opening their Japanese store.

Yahoo STILL beats Google for mapping Japan, 4+ years later

Reprising a topic which I brought up in 2006, it seems that Google’s mapping team still needs to get its act together when it comes to covering Japan. Their map data is nearly a year out of date, while Yahoo seems to update its maps almost in real time.

I’ll focus on Tokyo area airports in this post, since they are one of my primary target areas of geekery. Here is Google’s map of the area surrounding Narita Airport rapid access line, which opened last summer:


View Larger Map

Note that the line doesn’t show up at all (though its timetable data is loaded into the transit directions engine, and the route will be vaguely highlighted if you search for it). On the other hand, Yahoo is completely up to date:

Now here is Google’s map of Haneda Airport, where a new international terminal opened back in October. Of course, they haven’t gotten around to updating yet, though they at least managed to include an icon showing one (but not both) of the new international terminal’s railway stations.


View Larger Map

Yahoo again is totally up to date, showing the full terminal building, the surrounding tarmac AND both stations (zoom in to see them).

So what gives? Both services are apparently getting map data from the same company (Zenrin) so you would think their maps would have almost identical content. One possibility, corroborated by the copyright legends at the bottom of the maps, is that Google is relying totally on Zenrin while Yahoo makes its own updates pending full updates from Zenrin. Another possibility is that Google simply doesn’t demand updates from Zenrin as often because their Maps team is based outside Japan and has no clue how much construction goes on here.

8819 LDP

That’s not a license plate number: it’s the LDP’s cryptic way of tying themselves to the paternity leave system. Read out loud, it sounds similar to papa ikukyu (パパ育休) or “Daddy Childcare Leave.”

The code makes a very subtle appearance in the recent TV commercial featuring Sadakazu Tanigaki’s ridiculously impassioned speech about making Japan number one again. This spot has been coming up once in the rotation during every World Cup game I have seen so far (except, of course, the ones on NHK).

The slogan appears on the green silicon bracelet he’s wearing.

You can buy your own here, although you have to register as an LDP merchandise customer first, and I’m not sure whether non-citizens are definitively eligible for this. They do specify that you have to be a resident of Japan and that they will only ship within Japan.

(Thanks to Mrs. Peter for the tip)