This weekend I went shopping to get myself a Japanese mobile. Only it’s not really that Japanese. Like many people here at the moment, I went home with an iPhone in my pocket.

Japan has a reputation for being ahead of the game when it comes to mobile technology and this may well have been true when I first visited Japan five years ago.  At that time it was rare to see anything but homegrown flip-style keitai in the hands of Tokyo commuters as they sent emails, went online and even watched TV on their handsets. Back then, that stuff was still the preserve of science fiction for most Brits.

But things have gradually changed as over the last few years the iPhone has become an increasingly common sight in both countries.

And this year has truly been the year of the ‘smartphone’ in Japan with the operators all scrambling to capture their share of the new market. Softbank has exclusive rights to carry the iPhone, still by far the most popular smart device, but Docomo has been fighting back with a high profile campaign featuring the Samsung Galaxy & Galaxy Tab, a snazzily dressed young salary-man and… Darth Vader for some reason!

Smartphone Wars

AU have also been running a high profile campaign for their Android smartphone offer, with (rather more understandably given her popularity here and just about everywhere else) Lady Gaga doing the pimping…

Local manufacturers, keen not to miss a trick, are also getting involved with handsets based around Google’s Android technology. Sony Ericsson has been chipping away at Apple’s market-share with its Xperia X10 and others have interesting offerings in the work with a more Japanese bent – such as the Toshiba Regza, based around it’s TV technology, or these 3D Sharp handsets.

So Japan isn’t quite the Galapagos that it used to be when it comes to mobile technology. As elsewhere, the iPhone has shaken up the market and the rules of the game have changed. Although Japanese companies still lead the way in some aspects of mobile technology, such as the electronic wallet or streaming TV, the usability andversatility that iPhone and Android devices offer have won over consumers. Given how little outside competition there was before, Japanese manufacturers are having to up their game… and do it quickly!

All that said, traditional keitai have most definitely not gone away and still hold a special place in the hearts and minds of the Japanese. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for trendy young Tokyo-ites to own both a smartphone for Internet browsing and a keitai for well… making phone calls.

The big trend here seems to be style, with manufacturers building on the Japanese love of adorning their keitai with all kinds of trinkets and baubles by offering handsets to give their owner a unique look, whether it’s biscuit-shaped, made of wood or just plain colourful like this range from Softbank…