Mobile Phone Carriers in Japan

NTT Docomo

Mobile carriers in Japan are a highly protected group of companies.  Mobile phones in Japan have been a symbolic Galapagos island where they utilize technologies and features that are unique to Japan.  As time has gone on and the world started to become closer due to the internet, Japan’s mobile systems have started to become closer to their western counterparts.  When moving to Japan for the first time, it can be difficult to know which company to go with and what to make of each company.  Each company has their own pros and cons whether it be based on prices, phones available, or even just the service.  Like any country you visit it pays to research and decide what you want but sometimes it can be difficult to know much about these companies.  Thankfully Japan doesn’t have too many mobile phone carriers and a lot of them advertise themselves within the major electronic shops in Japan.  It is really easy to find them but understanding things can still be a bit difficult without the correct information, and we all know how trustworthy a salesman can be.


The leading carrier in Japan is Docomo which is a subsidiary of NTT, the original government company that had a monopoly on all telephony in Japan.  With deregulation, NTT lost a lot of ground naturally and is continually losing ground to the other two major carriers Softbank and au (pronounced aye-you).  Docomo is largely considered the best mobile carrier in Japan.  It is also the most expensive carrier.  They were the last carrier to adopt smartphones but now one of the most aggressive at marketing their smartphones.  Docomo has changed so much in the last couple years that they almost exclusively market their smartphones with other older style phones being relegated to fluff status.  Most of the marketing for Docomo tends to be on the serious side with short simple videos on how their phones are used.  Their highest profile celebrity spokesperson has to be Ken Watanabe.  He has been their spokesperson since at least 2010.  Recently, they hired musician Keisuke Kuwata, the leader of Southern All-Stars, one of the most popular musical groups of all time in Japan.  While Ken Watanabe and Keisuke Kuwata are the celebrity spokespeople for Docomo, Docomo has their own mascot in Docomodake.  Docomodake was unveiled in 2005.  Docomodake is a combination of “Docomo” and “dake”.  “Dake” has two meanings according to Docomo itself.  The first meaning is only, or rather “Docomo only”.  It can simply be taken to mean that you only need Docomo in the world.  “Dake’s” second translation is the name of a type of mushroom.  Docomodake itself is a mushroom and there are actually several versions of Docomodake that create an entire family from grandparents to children.

au by KDDI

au by KDDI is the second largest mobile carrier in Japan.  They are often forgotten in the mobile market even though they hold the second largest market share in Japan.  They have existed since 2000 and have overtaken the longer established Softbank in their short time as a mobile provider.  They are as aggressive in their marketing as the other major providers however they lack the ability to be recognized as a powerhouse.  Quite often people think of au as a simple provider that cannot provide great services.  Their network coverage is second to Docomo and their prices are almost as competitive as Softbank.  They may not be the first to market a product, nor do they have the best products in Japan but they are one of the quickest to change to meet the demands of their customers.  au has had a problem with marketing.  From 2008 until roughly 2011, the main celebrity sponsor was Arashi, a boy band that is the most popular boy band in Japan at the moment.  au spent a lot of money to create interesting commercials with them that helped the company improve its exposure but kept it from being taken seriously as a business carrier.  Many businesses looked down on au because of Arashi as many people didn’t think they were serious enough for business.  Image is everything in Japan and au was not improving their sales in the business market so they made a change in 2012.  From 2012 they hired Ayame Goriki, a rising actress in Japan.  The commercials have changed slightly to start highlighting their services more than using a boy band to highlight their phones and how to use them with a comical tone.  While the idea of hiring a boy band may seem somewhat poor in taste, au did have a good reason to do this.  Their main mascot is LISMO-kun.  LISMO-kun is mainly used to promote their music distribution service but it is also used by au in general.  LISMO itself is a white silhouette of a squirrel listening to music and holding a sign promoting au.  LISMO, I think, is a combination of the words “listen” and “more”, rather “mo” which is also “more” in Japanese.  “Lisu” is actually the Japanese word for “squirrel” which makes a lot of sense for the character itself.  Unfortunately this character is not popular and often takes second fiddle to the celebrity sponsors.  This is also true of Docomodake from Docomo.

Softbank’s Otoosan

The third largest mobile carrier in Japan is Softbank.  Softbank has one of the most fractured histories of all mobile carriers.  Softbank started in 1984 as Japan Telecom before it was changed to J-phone.  Many people still remember the J-phone name although it is very rare to hear that name mentioned anymore.  Vodafone bought out J-phone in 2001 with a full re-branding in 2003.  This would turn out to be short lived as by 2006 Masayoshi Son, the founder of the telecommunications company Softbank, purchased Vodafone Japan and re-branded the service as Softbank.  Softbank itself is now one of the most recognized mobile carriers in Japan with one of the most effective advertising campaigns.  It is the fastest growing mobile carrier in Japan and both Docomo and au are scared.  In the beginning of Softbank’s reign as a mobile carrier, things were pretty slow.  In 2008 Softbank was capable of securing a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone.  It has taken that exclusive deal and ran with it all the way to the bank.  They were capable of getting a strong lead ahead of both Docomo and au and even though au has now got the iPhone as well, most people associate the iPhone with Softbank.  While Softbank may be the fastest growing carrier in Japan, they are also one of the most derided carriers.  They are infamously known for having the worst coverage area of the big three which causes a lot of problems for their existing customer base.  While they are the weakest in terms of coverage, they are the strongest in terms of marketing.  Softbank has been the largest provider to the expat market in Japan.  They are also the most effective in their commercial campaigns.

Softbank’s Otoosan

From 2007 Softbank had introduce the “White Family”.  This is not a reference to any white supremacy group but rather the “White Plan”, the name of Softbank’s cheapest mobile talk plan.  It was the cheapest plan ever seen in Japan at the time and now it has become standard.  The White Family itself is composed of 5 people spanning 3 generations of the family.  The grandmother is played by Ayako Wakao, a famous actress.  The mother is played by Kanako Higuchi, another famous actress.  The highest bankable star of the family is the daughter, Aya Ueto.  The family itself was conceived around her.  The family’s family name is “Shiroto” which is a combination of the words “white” and “door”, but “door” is also the second part of Aya Ueto’s family name.  She is also the only member of the family to use her real name as her character name.  One of the stranger characters of the family is Dante Carver who plays the older brother of Aya Ueto in the family.  He is an African-American actor in Japan whose popularity skyrocketed following his role within the White Family.  While Dante Carver may seem like the strangest character within the family itself, it is the father who is the strangest.  The father is played by Kai-kun, a white Hokkaido dog that speaks.  Kai-kun himself has become the most famous dog in Japan and made his owners pretty rich.  He was unknown before the White Family series of commercials and now he has his own series of books and merchandise.  While Docomo and au both have fictional characters as their mascot, Softbank realized the bankability of Kai-kun, rather the father of the White Family, as their own mascot.  Kai-kun is affectionately called “Otoosan” or “Father” by most people.  His character graces everything from cups and mugs to Volkswagen Bugs.  He has even been cross merchandised into Softbank’s own professional baseball team the Softbank Hawks.  The father of the White Family is voiced by Kinya Kitaoji, a famous Japanese actor who is generally left out of the limelight when it comes to being recognized within the family.  The White Family series of commercials have been so popular that many famous Japanese celebrities have wanted to be in the commercials themselves.  The White Family has become so large that they are nearly their own entity within Softbank itself.

E-Mobile with Tomomi Itano

After the big three carriers, NTT Docomo, au by KDDI, and Softbank, there are two small carriers that often get overlooked by the mass public.  The fourth largest carrier is Willcom.  Willcom is a very small specialty carrier that focuses on old technology.  It is barely a carrier in itself as it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Softbank.  Willcom primarily serves the old traditional mobile phone market along with some wireless communications with USB mobile routers.  They also have a couple smartphones for sale.  The company itself is a mystery to me as Softbank is directly competing with itself.  I would have imagined that it would be better to just absorb Willcom into Softbank but perhaps they want to minimize their regular feature phones to Willcom.  This is very unlikely but sometimes these companies don’t make much sense.  E-mobile is another curious carrier that has been growing its presence in Japan for the last few years.  They have primarily focused their marketing on wifi routers that connect to mobile networks.  The always boast that they have the fastest mobile technologies but sell a huge array of wifi routers with various levels of technological capacity.  Some of the technologies are limited to the old 3G networks while most of their products use most of the modern technologies.  E-mobile tied up with NTT Docomo around 2007 to promote more voice communications whereas they used to primarily be a data only service.  At that time they worked more on expanding their services and coverage to cover as much of Japan as possible.  They now boast that they cover 90% of Japan but they are still not taken as seriously as they potentially should.  In 2011 E-mobile decided to change their marketing strategy and hired Tomomi Itano, a member of the teen idol group AKB48, as their main spokesperson.  She was an instant hit among her fans and E-mobile rocketed up in visibility.  Whether this has helped the company gain new customers is unknown as they don’t report their total subscribers.  Between Willcom and E-mobile, it is highly likely that E-mobile can become the fourth major carrier in Japan, but with the Japanese market the way it is, it looks unlikely.  They may forever be restricted to being a niche carrier that supplies communications for people who need wifi routers only.

au by KDDIWhile Japan has 5 official mobile carriers, only 3 are of importance.  The old stalwart of NTT Docomo will be around for a long time.  They carry the flag of Android and will continue to market themselves as being the serious company to go to.  au will always play the middle ground and try their best to improve their position within Japan.  Improving the quality of their service will be one way they can gain more market share but knowing Japanese companies, they are very likely to just sit on their hands and wait for something to happen.  Softbank, headed by the charismatic Masayoshi Son is the shaker of the group.  He is not afraid to go after what he thinks is good.  They are the most innovative company of all the carriers and they continue to make gains within the mobile carrier market.  They have a strong potential to overtake au in the future and possibly even Docomo.  Their only achilles is their network, or rather lack of coverage.  It is difficult to use their system reliably and their coverage is not expansive enough.  They are working to improve things but compared to the other two companies, they are still playing catch-up.  There is a potential for another company such as E-mobile to come up and surprise people.  It is not unheard of but it is very unlikely that they will do this overnight.  It will take a lot of time but all of the companies have the potential to be much better than they are at the moment.

Mobile Carrier Information:

NTT Docomo (English/Japanese/Docomodake)
au by KDDI (English/Japanese/Lismo)
Softbank (English/Japanese/White Family Commercials)
Willcom (English/Japanese)