Big in Japan

Apple recently opened its second Japanese store. We made the trip to Osaka to see Apple's pride for ourselves, and gauge Japan's relationship with the Mac and iPod

Queues outside Apple Stores prior to their grand openings have always been impressive. Over 2,500 people lined up outside the second Apple Store in Japan (Shinsaibashi, Osaka) when it opened on 28 August 2004, eager to get their hands on the iPod mini. Since then, demand for the mini has outstripped supply by a considerable margin, with waiting times extending to seven weeks at certain points in 2004.

The level of frenzy surrounding Apple and its two Japanese stores has not yet died down. This is largely thanks to the ongoing promotional activities held at these stores; every week there are evenings of Apple-based entertainment, information and celebration.

Eccentric musical genius Nobukazu Takemura - Kyoto's leading electronica maestro, and a part-time Issey Miyake collaborator on the designer's fashion shows - was on-hand at the Shinsaibashi store in late August to show how he uses Macs to make groovy music. Likewise, local Osaka- and Tokyo-based labels often send their Mac-using acts to wow audiences at Apple's flagship stores. Shinsaibashi and Ginza are as much venues as they are retail outlets.

One of the main features of any Apple Store is its wonderfully titled Genius Bar. Located on the first floor of the Ginza and Shinsaibashi Apple Stores, the Genius Bar provides Mac and iPod users with an open forum. From cool operating techniques to buying advice, Apple's staff pass on their expertise free of charge.

Unsurprisingly, in Japan they are incredibly popular, meaning many Mac fans have been left waiting for hours to use the facility. In fact, demand is so great that many people book an appointment for the service at Apple.com/jp prior to visiting the store. Our only other complaint is that the Genius Bar doesn't double as a real bar: you won't get a sake here, only words of wisdom.

Low, low prices

The good news, as far as tourists and Japanese citizens are concerned, is that the Apple stores in these prefectures stock the newest Mac gear at the lowest prices outside of the States. (Even in the States Apple goods are only marginally cheaper than in Japan).

Take the iMac as a basic example: as of last month, a 17-inch 1.6GHz G5 iMac, with 1GB of RAM, cost Y195,000 (£980) in Japan, compared with £1,139 in the UK. That's a considerable saving by anyone's standards.

We were in need of a new PowerBook ourselves. We left Apple's Shinsaibashi store with a 12-inch 1.33GHz G4 model, complete with 768MB RAM and AirMac (aka AirPort) functionality. This set us back Y223,000 (£1,130), which compares favourably with the £1,508 it would have cost us in the UK (don't forget, import duty applies - Ed).

Such a great saving moved us to pick up a smart Porter carry-case exclusive to the Shinsaibashi Apple Store for an extra Y9,800 (£50) - the best things in life, it seems, cost considerably less in Japan.

Good reception

Apple doesn't release regional sales figures for Japan, but there are the telltale signs of wide acceptance everywhere here. In early August, for instance, when Apple Japan started to sell the iPod mini, the iPod family's share of the HDD music player market was over 72% - an indicator of truly formidable performance. Independent reports also attest that six of the eight top-selling music players are iPods.

To second that, we quizzed a random gaggle of college girls to find out what they thought of Apple products (ergo, the iPod). Replies were unanimously positive: Sugoi (really good), kawaii (cute!), and cool!

Clearly the vibrancy and spirit of Apple and its products are not lost on Japan's exuberant youth. As elsewhere, Japan's trendiest section of the population - its hip youth - champions Apple products as the cool alternative to other companies' wares.

The Mac marketshare

Over in the US, current figures show that Apple holds approximately 3.2% of the home computer market. (In sales terms, that is: installed user base is whole other issue.) In Japan, though, Apple boasts of having a slightly higher 5% hold of the marketshare. Takeshi Takebayashi, PR Director of Apple Japan, reckons that "the marketshare tells you the fact that Japanese people really prefer Apple than any other makers."

Of course, the Japanese love Sony products as much as they love Apple's. The iPod is outperforming Sony's HDD Walkmans and the company's myriad MD players, however, which lends some credence to Takebayashi's nonchalant response when we mentioned the competition from the rival company: "We have no comment for Sony."

iTunes not catchy?

Unfortunately for Apple, there is a hitch that, while unlikely to severely hinder its invasion of Japan, could at least put the dampers on progress. Although the iPod and iPod mini have long been available in Japan, the iTunes Music Store remains a work-in-progress project.

The main reason for this slow development is opposition from the other parties involved in making the iTMS happen in Japan - namely, Japanese music labels. Problems arose when Apple's iTunes-to-CD facility was broached. (Current music download services in Japan don't allow for the burning of tunes to CD.) Music companies here fear that such an option - built into the American and European versions of iTunes, of course - would bring the Japanese CD market to a jarring halt.

Another issue is that of Apple's Japanese pricing structure. Y220 is the typical price of a song download from Japan's current providers, but Apple would like to undercut that fee. Despite some opposition, which must first be overcome, Apple plans to have iTMS available in Japan within the next year and also intends to make songs available for about Y100.

The obstacles preventing the immediate accomplishment of those plans is less to do with Apple's threat to the CD market, than it is tied up with Apple's potential to destroy those Japanese music download sites already in place. One such site, Label Gate's Mora (www. labelgate.com), set up in April 2004, was established by a group of 18 Japanese labels (including Sony Music). But at Y200 per song, and with no CD-burning facility (files are copy-protected), iTunes at Y100 - with the option to burn - would seriously hurt Mora.

Hardware manufacturers Sony and Toshiba are also players in the Japanese downloadable music market, providing computer-less music downloads directly to their ranges of stereo equipment. Again, it's clear that many major Japanese music and technology firms have a lot to lose should the iTMS become a reality.

Yoshiaki Sakito, Vice President of Apple Japan, spoke bullishly on the matter to Japanese broadsheet Asahi Shinbun: "The record companies won't be able to swim against the tide forever." Powerful logic, we're sure you'd agree. If Apple has its way, iTMS will be a huge success in Japan, just as it has been in the west. And then, it seems, there will be nothing to stop Apple from conquering Japan.

The future's bright, the future's Apple

Apple's performance in Japan hasn't always been so impressive. Throughout the early years, in fact, Apple's approach was awfully misguided. Non-localised products at exorbitant prices ensured that Apple remained an overpriced foreign curio in Japan - until, in the early 1990s, serious efforts were made to give Japanese punters something worth buying into. Since then, Apple's rise in fortune has been astronomical.

While Apple has redrawn its designs on the Far East, Japan too has changed dramatically in recent times. McDonald's, for example, is now everywhere in Japan. Even in grand-scale cultural heritage sites such as former capital city Kyoto, the Golden Arches are conspicuous.

It's also important to note, however, that Apple products (and, naturally, the iPod in particular) are becoming equally conspicuous in the land of kimonos and Hello Kitty. But this influence, it seems, is very positive: the homework-inundated kids and stressed-out businessmen look happier when listening to their favourite tunes, while Japanese journalists using stable PowerBooks have the upper hand on their Windows-dogged peers. Apple is now making Japanese people of all ages very happy and will inevitably continue to attract more and more fans in this land of the cutting edge.