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Flip phone popularity remains unbowed in smartphone era Japan

Cellphones throughout the ages are on display at the Kanda branch of Keitai Ichiba. Phones include those compatible with the now defunct 2G, and the PHS (Personal Handyphone) system. (Mainichi/Saori Kawabata)

TOKYO -- Flip phones continue to maintain their popularity in Japan despite the widespread uptake of smartphones. The devices, very much yesterday's technology, still appeal to consumers due to their cheap contract costs and the effects of so-called "smartphone fatigue" caused by constant connectivity to social media sites.

"We sell between 200 and 300 flip phones a month. There are a lot of people who carry two handsets; a smartphone and then a flip phone for voice calls," says Asami Yokoyama, retail operations manager of Keitai Ichiba Co., a secondhand cellphone buyer and reseller that operates the main Kanda branch of Keitai Ichiba, a shop that specializes in flip phones. Since the shop opened in November 2017, the number of flip devices it sells has steadily increased.

Men in their 40s and 50s make up the majority of flip phone re-adopters. Many buy them for work and their children -- the latter because they serve as a less problematic alternative to giving them a smartphone as a contact unit. Men in their 20s and 30s are also increasingly using the devices as a complementary handset to their smartphones.

Yokoyama says the phones have a number of advantages over modern handsets. "Customers like that the phones have low contract costs, they're sturdy and the battery life is good. We also get teenage customers looking to avoid their smartphone for a period after problems on social media." Keitai Ichiba's customers have come from as far as Kyushu in southwestern Japan, and Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture in the country. One user gave their reasons for choosing a flip phone to the Mainichi Shimbun as, "They're simple and easy to use, and I don't feel like my life is dictated by my phone."

Even among younger generations, where smartphone uptake is very high, it seems many people have considered returning to a simpler device. In February Keitai Ichiba Co. surveyed around 600 people aged between their teens and 60s regarding their phone usage. Of the respondents, 33% said they had considered giving up their smartphone before. The answer was the highest among those between 10 and 19, with 48% of them saying they had thought about living without one, followed by 44% of those in their 20s. In response to being asked if they thought flip phones were good, 38% of all respondents answered yes. The question received over 30% positive responses from all age groups except those between 10 and 19.

According to the MM Research Institute, smartphone contracts overtook flip phones in Japan for the first time in 2014. The three major mobile network operators are all in the process of phasing out the flip phone supporting 3G network. KDDI Corp. (au) plans to end the service at the end of March 2022; NTT Docomo Inc. is aiming to do the same in the middle of the 2020s. Meanwhile, SoftBank Corp. is already ceasing location-based services on 3G from the end of November, but a timeline for the complete termination of the service has not yet been finalized. NTT Docomo Inc. says that as of the end of December last year it had approximately 23.7 million 3G contracts with customers in effect. KDDI Corp. and SoftBank Corp. have not made their figures public.

In the 30 years of the Heisei era, which began with the ascension of Emperor Akihito in 1989 and ends on April 30, 2019, the cellphone landscape has changed considerably in Japan. In the late '70s analogue cellphones limited to voice calls were the norm. With the advent of 2G in the '90s, receiving texts and still images via a handset became possible. In 2001, 3G opened up video communication. The first half of this decade saw the considerably faster 4G implemented. With the development of 5G -- which is at least the 10 times faster -- proceeding apace, NTT Docomo Inc. has announced its plans to bring the high speed network to the market in 2020.

-- Smart phone fatigue

The so-called "garaho" style of flip phone sold by the major cellphone companies looks like any other model of the familiar clamshell device, but the software is the same as a smartphone's. The phones run on the 4G network, are faster than a traditional flip phone, and only use applications that come pre-loaded onto the handset. KDDI Corp. says is committed to the flip phone format. "Some of our customers have told us they don't want handsets with lots of features and that they prefer using buttons to type. There are also young consumers exhausted by the constant connectivity of smartphones. Since there is a certain level of demand, we will continue selling flip phones."

IT journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa thinks that flip phones are here to stay. "The devices fulfill the needs of businesspeople and seniors, so even when we have 5G, we'll still have simple calls and email devices like the flip phone, too." For Ishikawa, the most important thing is choosing a device and payment plan that reflects the needs and fits the lifestyle of the user. "There's no right way to use a cell phone. We should be asking ourselves if the monthly cost is worth it, and look again at how we use our phones."

(Japanese original by Saori Kawabata, Lifestyle News Department)

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