Sharp Galapagos: Is Japan becoming an isolated state?

Sharp Galapagos: Is Japan becoming an isolated state?

A new e-reader from Sharp, tailor-made for Japan, highlights the country's global disconnect when it comes to business and culture
galapagos sharp japan future
The sun sets over the Sleeping Lion rock, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos. Is it also setting on Japan?

Galapagos -- quite a mouthful compared to say, iPad, but that’s Sharp’s choice of name for its upcoming e-reader tablet device. And true to spirit, the product will be available only in Japan (at least initially) when launched in December.

Japan’s Galapagos Syndrome, or the term Galapagos Japan, is used to describe how Japan still seems to be disconnected from the world in several spheres. Indeed, its unique business structure and system makes it necessary for financial institutions to classify their operations as “Asia Pacific” and “Asia Pacific ex-Japan,” the only market in the world to warrant such treatment. 

galapagos sharp japan futureSoftbank president Masayoshi Son introduces a new smart phone with a glassless 3D display called the 'Galapagos 003SH' on November 4, 2010.

Technological isolation

For a number of products and services in technology, especially Japan’s cell phone and mobile web markets, Japan seems impervious. Many a tech giant -- such as Facebook, MySpace and Nokia -- have come to Japan only to be conquered by the idiosyncratic consumer market that stubbornly resists synchronization. 

Conversely, Japanese innovations such as i-mode, the pioneer of mobile Internet, and 1Seg, a mobile TV standard, have made little headway overseas.

Even Japan’s pioneering lead in bullet-train technology is being overtaken by European and Chinese railway companies more keen to export their technology to less railway-developed countries. 

Similarly, Japan, home to video game classics such as Mario Brothers, Street Fighter and Sonic the Hedgehog, practically introduced video gaming to the world. But Japan is now being knocked out in that field as well.

While in 2002 Japan accounted for nearly half of the world's gaming market, that has now shrunk to 10 percent -- a statistic maintained mainly by the success of the Wii console. 

It seems the Japanese prefer games unique to their culture and current national sense of disillusionment that indulge in escapism into another universe, whereas recent global chart-toppers have been those that cut close to reality with first-person shooting perspectives, such as "Halo."

At the recent Tokyo Games Show, Keiji Inafune, head of global research and development and global head of production at Capcom, says "Japanese games won't be popular any more in their pure state. Japan is isolated in the gaming world."

An irony for Sharp

Sharp’s spin on the term -- originating from the Galapagos Islands, so untouched by outside influences that they inspired British geologist Charles Darwin to observe and form his theory of evolution in the 19th century -- is intended to reflect the constant evolution of technology that Sharp brings about.

The somewhat tragic irony, however,  is that the term “Galapagos Japan” and its negative connotation is only current among tech-savvy consumers in Japan, and virtually unknown outside of the country, notes Japan-based web industry consultant, Dr Serkan Toto.

In fact, Sharp may even use a different name for the product outside of Japan.

“Sharp designed a device that’s tailor-made for Japan, especially regarding the contents platform, so I’m not expecting an international roll-out anytime soon,” says Dr Toto. 

galapagos sharp japan futureA giant turtle (Geochelone nigra) iconic of the unique habitat of the Galapagos.

A language-induced problem?

In this age of globalization, why is Japan still engaged in Galapagosation?

Japan's population is on the downturn, with projections suggesting it will drop by 32 million to 95 million by 2050 and immigration rules remain stubbornly stringent.

Is Japan being left behind by the world, or is it leaving the world behind? 

It seems that Japan’s selective disconnect from the world may be genetically programmed, or rather, a fate sealed by its language. Japanese is barely spoken outside of the country, and few Japanese are fluent in both written and spoken English.

Indeed, the fact that the Japanese language is so highly evolved may be hindering its cultural evolution. It has three sets of characters and one set, katakana, for the purpose of integrating foreign words. 

These foreign words end up evolving into the Japanese language so much so that the locals forget its foreign origin. Take for example, the often used arubaito (referring to part-time work in Japanese from the German ‘arbeit’ -- 'work'). This is said to hinder the proper acquisition and pronunciation of a foreign language, such as English.

galapagos sharp japan futureCollege students raise their fists and flash victory signs during a ceremony to mark the start of the job-hunting season in Tokyo in 2010. More than usual are staying in their home country.

Grass eaters

This language barrier also serves to deter Japanese from traveling overseas, and is not helping to grow the number of Japanese students going abroad to study.

The number of Japanese students studying in the United States, for example, has been on the decline for the last decade, leading to the term "grass eaters," those who avoid undue stress by staying home rather than foraging in foreign lands. 

According to the Washington Post, Japanese enrollment in undergraduate programs in the United States has fallen 52 percent since 2000. Total U.S. enrollment from China meanwhile is up 164 percent, India up 190 percent. Even with 76 million fewer people than Japan, South Korea sends two-and-a-half times as many students to the United States.

Even today, it’s not unusual to meet Japanese that have not left the country until they reach university, or start working.

One such 18-year-old, Mika Yanagi, who recently went overseas to Canada for the first time on a school trip, told us that her first culture shock came from finding out that people overseas ate fruit -- such as apples, peaches and grapes -- with the skins left unpeeled! How uncivilized!

Innovation in isolation

Japan’s unique language has also spurred innovation too.

Japan’s global domination of the fax machine market, for example, owes credit to Japanese’s character images and its three sets of characters that were best transmitted via fax.

Though the fax machine originated in Britain, the Western world drifted to the telex while Japan continued to pursue innovation in the product. Today Japan has 93 faxes per 1,000 people compared to second-place United States with just 55 per 1,000.

Japan’s distinct, or some say archaic, business ethic and structure has also cushioned it from the global credit crunch and Japanese banks have since taken the chance to build up its overseas presence by shopping along Wall Street’s ‘closing sales.’

It may not go extinct, but it seems Japan is certainly trying to evolve in its own particular way.